UC Berkeley receives NASA funds to develop ionospheric satellite

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UC Berkeley scientists Jeremy Thorsness (left) and Thomas Immel discuss the ICON satellite mission operations at a campus lab.

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UC Berkeley will be developing an ionosphere-bound satellite with up to $200 million in funds from NASA.

On April 12, UC Berkeley was named the recipient of about $145 million to $200 million for its Ionospheric Connection project, or ICON, an exploratory satellite aiming to pinpoint the relationships between phenomena between different layers of the atmosphere.

In the past decade, scientists have discovered that weather in space is linked to Earth’s weather. Weather in the lower atmosphere drives conditions in space, said Thomas Immel, ICON’s principal investigator. Instruments on the satellite will measure various aspects of the ionosphere in order to determine what exactly drives events there.

“We want to understand how that process occurs so people can mitigate the effects … the ionosphere affects GPS more than anything, a concern for precision GPS users in particular,” Immel said.

Two instruments developed by UC Berkeley that will be on ICON are FUV, or far ultraviolet imager, and EUV, or extreme ultraviolet imager, said Stewart Harris, ICON’s payload manager. FUV will give the relative composition of the upper atmosphere, and EUV will measure the density of the ionosphere.

Led by UC Berkeley researchers, ICON will also use instruments developed by other institutions, such as the University of Texas at Dallas and the Naval Research Lab, said Manfred Bester, mission operations manager of the project.

According to Immel, NASA selected UC Berkeley after a two-year competitive process in which research proposals from UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory were chosen from among more than a dozen other proposals. Among other criteria, NASA considered whether research goals would be met and whether groups had a doable mission for the amount of money NASA had to offer, Immel said.

In early February, before the final decision was made, a NASA team made a site visit to UC Berkeley to ask researchers questions and conduct a firsthand evaluation, according to Harris.

NASA’s heliophysics branch will be overseeing the coming steps and will split the project’s development into different levels, each with a key checkpoint, Harris said. In this way, the funds act more like a contract than a grant, as ICON will have to meet basic requirements set forth by NASA.

Almost everyone on the ICON team, including both individuals and institutions, has worked with NASA before, according to Harris.

According to Immel, Orbital Sciences Corporation — a firm in the aerospace industry that has experience working with NASA — is partnering with the team and will manufacture the satellite.

“What’s called the ‘spacecraft bus’ is built by Orbital,” Harris said. “Orbital will design and build the communications system and the solar array.”

As of now, launch is set for the year 2017, Bester said.

Contact Christine Tyler at [email protected].