Pegasus XL rocket successfully launches NASA's satellite to study ionosphere

After year-long delay, Northrop Grumman launches ICON satellite

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

Northrop Grumman's Pegasus XL rocket successfully launched NASA's satellite Thursday night on its mission to study the ionosphere

The NASA spacecraft will observe colorful space weather happening at a space station astronaut's-eye view. The satellite called ICON, which stands for Ionospheric Connection Explorer, will study the frontier of space, known as the ionosphere.

Unlike most rockets, Pegasus can launch from almost anywhere there is a runway because it hitches a ride via airplane.

Northrop Grumman's plane Stargazer took off from Cape Canaveral Thursday evening, carrying the rocket to altitude over the Atlantic Ocean before dropping Pegasus XL to launch ICON.

This mission was a long-time coming.

Northrop Grumman twice attempted to launch 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.

This time around the launch was scheduled for Wednesday night but weather conditions were not favorable.

On Thursday, due to a communication issue with Stargazer the first attempt was aborted, but the second time, around at 10 p.m., Stargazer made the drop and Pegasus ignited right on cue.

NASA and Northrop Grumman officials said ICON was healthy and in its planned orbit about 20 minutes after launch.

Prior to the launch, ICON mission scientist Jeffery Klenzing spoke to News 6 via satellite to talk about the mission’s science goals and what NASA hopes to learn from the zone where Earth and space weather meet.

There is a lot happening in the ionosphere. It's where the International Space Station orbit's Earth, where the planet's atmosphere and space meet and also where Earth and space weather can influence each other.

"The ionosphere is actually kind of the transition between Earth weather and space weather. It’s about 200 to 300 miles off the ground," Klenzing said. "What we are looking at is not just the space weather driven by the sun but that which is driven by the Earth so winds down in the lower atmosphere can be driving electric fields that can propagate up."

Air glow not aurora

The space station is about 200 miles above Earth, positioned within the ionosphere providing astronauts living on the ISS regular views of the beautiful colors produced by charged particles known as air glow.

Klenzing said ICON will study the reactions that create air glow, not to be confused with the colorful aurora borealis.

"Mainly, we’re going to be looking at the air glow it’s kind of bright lights like the aurora but it’s seen at much lower latitudes — actually its seen everywhere — but this is sort of bright red and green," Klenzing said.

The beautiful lights can help scientists learn about what causes the reactions.

“Basically, as the sun is dumping energy into the atmosphere it’s exciting the atoms of molecules that are emitting red and green lights. ICON is going to look at those lights in order to better understand the ionosphere and the winds and temperatures that are driving all of these effects," Klenzing said.

Understanding ionosphere will help future astronaut travel

There is a good reason why NASA wants to understand the ionosphere and air glow because it can affect technology down on Earth.

"One of the ways it can affect us is it can interfere with communication and navigation signals," Klenzing said. "If you think about GPS navigation for airplanes, self-driving cars things like that."

Those technologies are important to communicate with astronauts living on the space station but also for future astronaut missions back to the moon and on to Mars.

"This is also useful for if we are sending astronauts back to the moon or beyond, right? Because we need to communicate with them as well as just once you leave the Earth’s magnetic field you are in a much harsher environment and much more prone CMEs (coronal mass ejections) and things coming off the sun," Klenzing said.

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