UC Berkeley researchers collaborate with NASA to launch satellite

NASA/Randy Beaudoin/Courtesy

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Scientists at UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory, or SSL, collaborated with researchers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, on a satellite scheduled to launch Wednesday.

The Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, is a satellite designed to study the ionosphere, the region between the outer edge of Earth’s atmosphere and the rest of space, according to the SSL website. This region consists of charged particles that allow people to use tools like GPS and most cellular devices.

According to SSL project systems engineer Ellen Taylor, researchers at UC Berkeley have been working on the ICON satellite with scientists at NASA for the past five years. Led by principal investigator Thomas Immel, SSL staff managed the project and developed the satellite. SSL will also house the Mission Operations Center, where scientists will operate the satellite and analyze any new information.

“We have a long history of working with NASA, participating in their explorer programs,” Taylor said. “For our last major mission with them, we put out five satellites and two are orbiting the moon.”

ICON is planned to orbit Earth for two years after its launch and is a result of collaborative efforts between UC Berkeley, NASA, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and the University of Texas at Dallas. According to a Berkeley News press release, it was initially scheduled to launch in 2017 but there have been multiple delays.

ICON will rely on four different instruments to study weather patterns, according to Taylor, with two of the instruments designed by researchers at UC Berkeley. These instruments will track the effects of atmospheric events on the sun’s activity and Earth using communication devices and navigation networks, which can be disturbed by changes in the ionosphere.

According to Savannah Perez-Piel, Undergraduate Laboratory at Berkeley research director for physics and astronomy, since most major operations have taken place close to campus, UC Berkeley’s participation in the project provided many research opportunities for undergraduate students.

“By having these industry leaders coming into a space where professional researchers and scientists and undergraduate students are, the projects expose them to the meeting point between industry astrophysics and scientific research,” Perez-Piel said.

As a part of UC Berkeley’s collaboration with NASA, undergraduates have been able to work with mentors and researchers on projects including the Parker Solar Probe, which was launched in 2018. Students and researchers also worked with NASA in 2007 on Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms, or THEMIS. Taylor said ICON is only one of many projects that researchers at UC Berkeley will develop alongside NASA.

“We hope to continue working with our colleagues at NASA and we hear announcements from them quite often,” Taylor said. “We have a couple other projects in the works that we’re excited to complete with them.”

Contact Aditya Katewa at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @adkatewa1.