Ionospheric Connection Explorer mission gets green light for development
NASA has announced that it is going forward with its Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON). Scheduled to launch in 2017, the orbital mission aims to study the effects of the lower atmosphere on the ionosphere and its impact on the Earth’s surface.
Starting 85 km (53 mi) up and ranging out to 600 km (370 mi), the ionosphere might seem more like a resident of a crossword puzzle than a factor in everyday life to most of us, but disturbances in it can have huge effects on communication, GPS navigation, and many other technologies that rely on radio.
The region is a near-vacuum on the edge of space where the tenuous atmosphere is ionized by solar radiation. The charged atoms that make it up act as a reflector that allows shortwave transmissions to bounce over the horizon, as well as a barrier that satellite broadcasts must punch through. However the nature of the ionosphere is far from stable and a major concern for researchers in space weather is to find ways of predicting the ionosphere’s behavior.
Until recently, it was thought that the only real factors affecting the ionosphere are the Sun and the Earth’s magnetic field. But NASA says that recent observations show that the movements of the lower layers of the atmosphere have a strong effect as well.
According to the space agency, ultraviolet images show bright areas in the ionosphere that correspond to daily cycles and seasons in the lower altitudes that could indicate a link between activity in the ionosphere and common weather events.