June 14 launch of ICON satellite to probe the edge of space

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By Robert Sanders, UC Berkeley Media relations | June 1, 2018

If scientists hope to predict the magnetic storms around Earth that endanger satellites and interfere with radio communications on the ground, they must understand how tropical storms on Earth affect these magnetic storms 60 miles above our heads.

A new mission, NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON), is charged with that very task: to measure the winds of ionized atoms at the edge of space and determine how they are impacted by atmospheric weather, in particular seasonal monsoons in the tropics.


Designed and built at the Space Sciences Laboratory of UC Berkeley, ICON is scheduled for a June 14 launch from an airplane over the Pacific Ocean, and should start probing the upper atmosphere and ionosphere by August.

“We are built to catch everything that is coming up into space at the boundary of space,” said Thomas Immel, principle investigator for the mission and a physicist at the Space Sciences Laboratory. “Anything that comes past there we are going to see.”

ICON arrives at Vandenberg

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On May 1, our Ionospheric Connection Explorer arrived at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for the next stage of its journey to launch, which is scheduled for June 14 US time from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. (Kwajalein is in a different time zone so it will be June 15 there.)

The observatory made an overnight trip from Gilbert, Arizona, where it was in an Orbital ATK facility. At Vandenberg, ICON will be integrated onto a Pegasus XL rocket and flown to Kwajalein on an L-1011 aircraft, which will double as the rocket's launcher.

Rub-A-Dub-Dub, ICON EUV gets a scrub

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In preparation for launch, the ICON EUV instrument recently went through a week long "scrub" activity at the Orbital ATK facility in Gilbert, Arizona. The detector in EUV is a microchannel plate (MCP), and the millions of tiny tubes in the MCP can develop different characteristics during all the testing done on the ground, and overall become less effective. The scrub involves running the detector at high voltage while it is illuminated by a bright EUV light source, which cleans off any molecules that weren’t there at the start of all that testing. When done for a sufficient amount of time (a week, in this case), the detector develops a more uniform and stable amplification, just like when it was new. It’s like a drink from the fountain of youth for the MCP.

Recent media articles featuring ICON and GOLD

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ICON and GOLD missions will study Earth's little-understood upper atmosphere. Here are some recent science and technology articles that have featured both missions, as the GOLD launch approaches in late January and ICON later this year:


ICON at AGU Fall Meeting

New Orleans, 11-15 Dec. 2017

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AGU’s Fall Meeting is the largest Earth and space science meeting in the world and this year takes place in New Orleans, Dec. 11-15. Click on Read More to see a compilation of ICON or GOLD-related sessions, posters and the SPA Town Hall (Monday night).

Congratulations to Joe Huba, ICON Co-Investigator, who will be presenting the 2017 Nicolet Lecture on Tuesday.


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ICON skin is based on Greytness by Adammer
Background image, courtesy of NASA, is a derivitave of photograph taken by D. Pettit from the ISS, used under Creative Commons license