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NASA uses a plane to launch a craft to the very edge of space

Northrop Grumman’s L-1011 aircraft, Stargazer, prepares for takeoff at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Skid Strip in Florida on Oct. 10, 2019. Attached beneath the aircraft is the company’s Pegasus XL rocket, carrying NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON). NASA

NASA has launched a new spacecraft, the Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON), for exploring the radiation-filled and inhospitable border between our planet’s atmosphere and space. On Thursday, the ICON spacecraft was carried aboard a Northrop Grumman Stargazer L-1011 aircraft that took it to an altitude of 39,000 feet before being deployed on a Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket, whose automated systems launched it into space.

The combination of plane and rocket was used to place ICON in a region of the upper atmosphere called the ionosphere, at an altitude of about 360 miles. This region marks the inner edge of the magnetosphere, where there is heavy radiation creating space weather. This radiation is important to study because it not only affects machinery but can also have deleterious effects on the health of astronauts.

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It has traditionally been difficult to research the ionosphere as it is too low for spacecraft to study and too high for balloons. The ICON craft is designed to withstand this harsh environment.

“ICON has an important job to do — to help us understand the dynamic space environment near our home,” Nicola Fox, director for heliophysics at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. “ICON will be the first mission to simultaneously track what’s happening in Earth’s upper atmosphere and in space to see how the two interact, causing the kind of changes that can disrupt our communications systems.”

In order to study this complex region, ICON is armed with four instruments: The Michelson Interferometer for Global High-resolution Thermospheric Imaging (MIGHTI) for observing the temperature of the atmosphere; the Ion Velocity Meter (IVM) for observing how fast charged particles move in the atmosphere; the Extreme Ultra-Violet instrument (EUV) for taking images of oxygen in the atmosphere, and the Far Ultra-Violet instrument (FUV) for capturing images of the atmospheric in the ultraviolet spectrum.

“We put as much capability on this satellite that could possibly fit on the payload deck,” Thomas Immel, the principal investigator for ICON at the University of California, Berkeley, said in the same statement. “All those instruments are focused on the ionosphere in a completely new science mission that starts now.”

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