Two NASA satellites slated for 2017 launch will focus on edge of space

ICON and GOLD orbiting Earth

NASA’s ICON and GOLD missions will take complementary observations of Earth’s ionosphere and upper atmosphere. NASA image.

Scientists at UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory are preparing for the 2017 launch of an Earth-orbiting satellite to discover how storms in the atmosphere affect storms in the ionosphere.

The ionosphere is the edge of space where the sun ionizes the air in Earth’s atmosphere to create constantly shifting streams and sheets of charged particles.

The NASA-funded satellite, called the Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, will complement observations from a sister satellite also scheduled for launch in 2017: the Global Observations of the Limb and Disk, or GOLD. GOLD is being led by the University of Central Florida, though UC Berkeley space scientist Scott England works on both missions.

While ICON will orbit Earth at an altitude of 350 miles, observing airglow from charged particles in the ionosphere and neutral particles in the atmosphere, GOLD will take similar measurements while parked in a geostationary orbit 22,000 miles above Earth to get a global view of how the ionosphere changes, England said.

the ICON satellite

ICON, a NASA Explorer mission led by UC Berkeley, will observe multiple wavelengths of light to study different aspects of the ionosphere and upper atmosphere. Image courtesy of NASA GSFC/CIL/UC Berkeley.

The goal is to connect what happens in the atmosphere to what happens at the edge of space, and to help understand the disturbances that can lead to severe interference with communications and GPS signals.

“The ionosphere doesn’t only react to energy input by solar storms,” England said. “Terrestrial weather, like hurricanes and wind patterns, can shape the atmosphere and ionosphere, changing how they react to space weather.

“We will be using these two missions together to understand how dynamic weather systems are reflected in the upper atmosphere, and how these changes impact the ionosphere.”

England discussed the upcoming ICON and GOLD missions, both Explorer-class missions managed by the NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center in Maryland, during the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

See this April 2016 story for more detail about the ICON mission and the scientists who are making it happen.

NASA story, "Revolutions in Understanding the Ionosphere"