NASA Finally Launches ICON After Two Year Long Delay

NASA Finally Launches ICON After Two Year Long Delay

The U.S. government's decision to allow the entry of private players into the space market allowed NASA to focus on in-depth space research; however, they still haven't been able to break the jinx of delays faced during missions. Private companies like Boeing and SpaceX have made launching to space much cheaper than before, but have failed to deliver on timelines.

Fremont, CA: The Cold War rivalry between the U.S. and Russia was one of the significant reasons that propelled NASA as a space superpower. The Russian launch of Sputnik fueled the American agenda of finishing second to none. The Russians managed to send the first man into space; as a result, the Americans sent the first man to the Moon. The Space Shuttle served NASA exceedingly well for thirty years between 1981 and 2011, before being decommissioned.

Now without a launch vehicle, NASA was left with no option but to make use of the Russian Soyuz Capsule. The U.S. government's decision to allow the entry of private players into the space market allowed NASA to focus on in-depth space research; however, they still haven't been able to break the jinx of delays faced during space missions. Private companies like Boeing and SpaceX have made launching to space much cheaper than before, but have failed to deliver on timelines. The Boeing Starliner, which was supposed to conduct its first mission on March 2019, is yet to complete it's in-flight abort tests. SpaceX's Crew Dragon Spacecraft, after going through an explosion in its initial testing round, is also running behind the schedule.

NASA launched it's Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) Spacecraft on the 11th of October this year, a mission that was scheduled to launch in 2017. The long-awaited mission is designed to probe Earth's upper atmosphere. The ICON spacecraft was launched aboard a Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL Rocket, released in mid-air from its Stargazer L-1011 carrier plane. After making its way to the Earth orbit, the ICON will study the Earth's ionosphere, where the atmosphere overlaps the boundary of space. Data collected by the spacecraft will help scientists understand the relationship between space weather and terrestrial weather, and the interaction between the two in the ionosphere.

The International Space Station is located at the dynamic point where the Earth's weather merges with the space weather and is a critical pathway for communications satellites. This turbulent layer also poses a threat to radio waves and Global Positioning System signals, as they can get distorted while passing through, due to the presence of patches of ionized material. This affects not only communications systems but also electronics and power grids. Once ICON is in position, scientists will be able to understand the sun and its various processes that cause such activities.

The probe, worth USD 252 million, will go right into the thick of the ionosphere into a circular orbit 357 miles above the surface of the Earth. It is equipped with various instruments designed to measure winds and particles. ICON is also equipped to measure the density of the atmosphere and analyze its chemical composition. If the ICON was launched as per schedule, scientists would already have been analyzing such data and implementing changes based on their observations and understandings.

Originally scheduled to launch in 2017, the ICON faced multiple lengthy delays due to issues with the Pegasus. More recently, the mission was postponed further due to adverse weather conditions. It was finally launched with the help of the Stargazer L-1011 from the Skid Strip runway at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on a 57-foot long rocket. The flight marked the 44th launch of a Pegasus Rocket on a satellite delivery mission, and also the 7th out of Cape Canaveral.

Once in space, the ICON will work in parallel with another NASA mission called Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD), which was launched in January 2018 as a tagalong payload on a commercial communications satellite. Since then, GOLD has been monitoring the ionosphere from its orbital position 22,000 miles above the Earth. GOLD and ICON will together be able to provide a complete picture of the inner workings of the ionosphere.

Weekly Brief