NASA mission to study edge of space set to launch this week

Weather conditions aren't favorable Wednesday, Thursday improves

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - A year after the first try, Northrop Grumman is set to launch NASA's ICON mission over the Atlantic Ocean Wednesday night; however, the weather may not corporate.

ICON, which stands for Ionospheric Connection Explorer, will study the frontier of space, the area between Earth's atmosphere and space. The Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley leads the scientific development and research behind the mission.

NASA says Northrop Grumman is targeting a 90-minute window opening Wednesday at 9:25 p.m. to launch ICON from its Pegasus XL rocket.

The 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.

Stargazer will take off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 8:30 p.m. and carry Pegasus and ICON over the Atlantic Ocean before dropping the rocket. 

However, before ICON can begin its mission it has to reach space and the weather here on Earth isn't helping.

Air Force weather officials give the launch a 30% chance of "go" conditions Wednesday due to cloud cover and lightning. Chances improve Thursday to 60% if the launch delays 24 hours, according to the 45th Weather Squadron.

Here's everything you need to know ahead of the ICON launch this week:

How to watch?

Since this isn't a typical vertical launch you won't be able to see Pegasus from the Space Coast. NASA will carry a livestream of the plane-assisted launch beginning at 9:15 p.m. That stream will also be available here on ClickOrlando.com/space.

Why the delay?

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.

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.

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.

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