Much delayed NASA ICON spacecraft to launch in October after yearlong investigation

New launch date set for Oct. 10

The Northrop Grumman L-1011 Stargazer aircraft, with the Pegasus XL rocket under its wing, on the runway at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 7, 2018. NASA's ICON spacecraft is secured inside the rocket's payload fairing. (Photo credit: NASA/Frank Michaux)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Following nearly a yearlong investigation Northrop Grumman will try again to launch a NASA spacecraft designed to study Earth's upper atmosphere on its plane-assisted rocket Pegasus XL, NASA announced on Monday.

Northrop Grumman twice attempted to launch NASA's Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, in November last year but a sensor on the rocket gave a reading "not within normal limits," and the launch vehicle and spacecraft were sent back to California for more testing on Nov. 19, 2018.

On Monday, NASA said in a news release Northrop is now targeting Oct. 10 to launch ICON from Cape Canaveral.

Engineers with Northrop Grumman and NASA worked to determine the cause of the original issue, however, NASA has not disclosed the cause.

"The cause of the issue is understood, and the flight hardware has been modified to address the issue," NASA said in a statement.

Emails to Northrop Grumman from WKMG News 6 about the cause and the new launch date were unanswered.

A Pegasus XL rocket launch may sound unusual to those used to seeing a vertical launch from the Space Coast. The rocket hitches a ride into the sky on an aircraft known as the Stargazer.

ICON and the Stargazer are set to arrive back on the Space Coast Oct. 1 to begin launch preparations, according to NASA.

On launch day, Stargazer will take off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and will release the rocket at 39,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean. Pegasus will then free-fall for a few seconds before igniting its rocket motor and carrying ICON into orbit in just over 10 minutes.

The Space Sciences Laboratory at University of California Berkeley leads the scientific development and research behind the mission.

"The goal of the ICON mission is to understand the tug-of-war between Earth's atmosphere and the space environment," according to UC Berkeley's website.

Here are four things to know about ICON's mission:

ICON will study the ionosphere. This zone is where GPS signals and radio communications travel, and NASA wants to understand how gases in the ionosphere can affect those technologies.

Where is the ionosphere? Looking down on Earth from the International Space Station — about 300 miles above the planet -- Earth's upper atmosphere is a swirl of red, green, purple and yellow. Similar to auroras, that beautiful light is known as airglow, which happens as atoms and molecules shed excess energy as they meet sunlight, according to NASA.

ICON will look at airglow to learn more about how interactions between charged particles can affect technology on Earth and how airglow can reveal patterns.

"Each atmospheric gas has its own favored airglow color, depending on the gas, altitude region and excitation process, so you can use airglow to study different layers of the atmosphere," said Doug Rowland, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "We're not studying airglow per se, but using it as a diagnostic."

Another NASA mission, GOLD, led by a former University of Central Florida professor, is also currently studying Earth's upper atmosphere. While ICON focuses on how charged particles and gases interact with the ionosphere, GOLD is observing what causes change between Earth and space.

The two missions will work in tandem to help scientists answer questions about this area of Earth's atmosphere.

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