ICON satellite to explore link between weather, plasma at space’s edge

NASA Goddard's Conceptual Image Lab/B. Monroe/Courtesy

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UC Berkeley scientists involved in the development of a new NASA satellite have built and shipped several of the satellite’s components to Utah, where they will undergo testing until early this summer.

The Ionospheric Connection Explorer, also known as ICON, is set to launch in summer 2017. According to the mission’s principal investigator Thomas Immel, the NASA satellite will study how weather conditions in the lower atmosphere drive changes in the ionosphere — the layer of the atmosphere that extends from 30 miles to 600 miles above the Earth’s surface.

In 2012, after submitting its proposal to design the new NASA ICON satellite, UC Berkeley was selected to lead the mission. Campus researchers collaborated with other institutions, including Utah State University and the Naval Research Laboratory, to develop and construct ICON’s various components.

“ICON will allow mission scientists to better understand how processes in the atmosphere, for example, storm systems, have (a) significant impact on ‘space weather’ — that is, the conditions in the ionosphere around Earth,” said William Craig, ICON’s project manager, in an email. He added that these conditions can affect the performance of orbiting satellites.

According to Immel, the variability of conditions in the ionosphere was not discovered until 2000, when NASA’s IMAGE mission revealed the first evidence of the phenomenon.

The reason behind this variability, however, was unknown until 2005, when campus scientists found that variability in plasma could be linked to changes in the lower atmosphere. While researchers have studied how atmospheric conditions affect Earth’s atmosphere, Immel noted that not many have examined how Earth’s atmospheric conditions can affect the ionosphere — what he termed “the upward coupling.”

“The focus of ICON is on this new connection: understanding how the troposphere drives conditions higher up in space,” Immel said. “It’s actually a lot easier to see this upward connection once you know where to look, but it’s never been studied the way ICON is designed to study it.”

As ICON orbits Earth at an altitude of 500 kilometers, it will collect and compare data from different elevations. At higher elevations, ICON will collect data on the variability of plasma, while data at lower elevations will measure conductivity and “space wind,” Immel said.

Campus researchers will then compare the conductivity and wind data to these plasma fluctuations in order to analyze how each factor might contribute to conditions in the ionosphere.

“Everything in the lower atmosphere affects the upper atmosphere,” Immel said. “For example, we’re fairly certain that there are things like an El Nino in space. ICON will help us make predictions about the space environment that are dramatically better than they have been in the past.”

Logan Goldberg is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact him at [email protected].