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 Ready to Ship

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The ICON mission is proceeding apace. High fives are in order since the team just completed its fourth operational readiness test (ORT). During an ORT, a dozen SSL Mission Operation Team Members join forces with two dozen spacecraft engineers from Orbital ATK to rehearse the first week of activities that will occur during ICON’s launch and early orbit. It’s an entire week of long days and intensive testing in ICON’s Mission Operations Center at the UC Berkeley Space Sciences Lab, to simulate operation of the observatory. Spurred along by the fact that this was the final ORT before launch, the team worked together to bring it to a healthy and successful completion (simulating operations with a failed momentum wheel, no less). The next time these teams come together at SSL will be the actual launch day for ICON.

What does the Mission Operations Center do?

The MOC team prepare for the upcoming launch

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Dr. Manfred Bester, Manager of Mission Operations Center at the Space Sciences Lab of UC Berkeley, explains what he and his team do to prepare for the upcoming ICON launch.

"The most intense part is the immediate time before launch."

ICON at Cal Day, UC Berkeley's Open House

Life-size payload model popular with public

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On April 22, 2017, members of the ICON team showed off a life-size 3D-printed ICON payload mock-up—built by Space Dynamics Lab—at Lawrence Hall of Science (LHS) for Cal Day, UC Berkeley’s all-day Open House. PI Thomas Immel was on hand to answer questions. Nearly 1500 visitors, primarily families, made the extra trip up the hill from campus (where most activities were happening) to LHS and through the main hall, where the life-size model and other ICON outreach activities were featured.

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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