Rare aircraft-assisted rocket launch delayed for more testing

ICON will study Earth's upper atmosphere

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA and Northrop Grumman have delayed the launch of the Pegasus XL to conduct more testing on the rocket, which is deployed from an airplane.

The Northrop Grumman rocket was scheduled to launch NASA Ionospheric Connection Explorer spacecraft that will study Earth's upper atmosphere two weeks ago. However, NASA officials said they are delaying the launch to an undetermined date for more testing.

NASA announced this week it is targeting no earlier than Nov. 7 for an early morning launch.

When ICON does launch on Pegasus, space fans won't be able to see this launch in person like most launches on the spacecraft.

The Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket will catch a ride into the sky on a L-1011 aircraft known as the "Stargazer." The aircraft will take off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and 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.

Pegasus has launched more than 40 small satellites, according to officials with Northrop Grumman.

NASA will still stream the countdown on NASA TV with live launch commentary when the new launch date and time is announced.

Why study the space between Earth and space?

ICON is designed to study the atmosphere between Earth and space known as 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.

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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“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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