NASA, UC Berkeley researchers ‘flawlessly’ launch ICON satellite

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NASA launched the Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, satellite 9:59 p.m. Thursday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, or CCAFS, in Florida.

The ICON satellite, which was attached to NASA’s Pegasus XL rocket on the company’s L-1011 Stargazer aircraft, was designed to study the dynamic zone in the atmosphere where terrestrial weather from below meets space weather from above. Once an altitude of 39,000 feet was reached by the aircraft, Pegasus XL was dropped, and it propelled on its own five seconds later.

According to NASA’s press release, ICON will study the changes in a region of the upper atmosphere called the ionosphere.

“ICON is a new mass mission that is focused on the region of space near Earth,” said Thomas Immel, ICON principal investigator at UC Berkeley. “Its focus is on the conditions in our region and how they are not only affected by the sun.”

The launch was initially introduced in April 2013 and scheduled to launch in June 2017, according to Immel. Although UC Berkeley researchers were on track for the launch at the time, Immel’s team experienced issues with the rocket, which postponed the launch.

The ICON satellite drop was originally set to 9:30 p.m., but because of a loss of communication between ground teams at CCAFS and the Stargazer, a second attempt was initiated, according to the press release.

“Obviously there was a loss of communication with the aircraft that you would like to avoid for the future,” Immel said. “We were able to re-cycle and take the next 30 minutes to get the plane in position again for a second launch attempt.”

According to Immel, the loss of communication was not apparent to anyone at that time. The pilot of the aircraft was apparently able to hear everything but not able to get a response back to CCAFS.

“It’s remarkable that no one in the room wanted to be the one person who was freaking out, so everyone pretty much (kept) their cool and that was great,” Immel said.

Besides this minor complication, Immel said the launch went “flawlessly.”

UC Berkeley will continue to work with NASA on two possible Mars missions, according to Immel.

The first mission, Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers, would orbit Mars and explore how the solar wind strips the atmosphere away from the planet. The second, Tandem Reconnection and Cusp Electrodynamics Reconnaissance Satellites, would employ two identical satellites to observe Earth’s northern magnetic cusp.

“Everyone made a major contribution in one way or another,” Immel said. “The spacecraft is in great shape, and we’re in space because of the hundreds of people working on this launch. … it’s been a remarkable experience.”

Contact Olivia González Britt at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @Oliviagbritt.