Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON)

Led by Dr. Thomas Immel of the University of California, Berkeley, was launched in 2019, ICON probes the extreme variability of Earth’s ionosphere with in-situ and remote-sensing instruments from its orbit 550 kilometers (345 miles) above Earth. The ionosphere is the region at the edge of space where the sun ionizes the air to create constantly shifting streams and sheets of charged particles. Fluctuations in the ionosphere, which are a form of space weather, cause interference in signals from communications and global positioning satellites. Such space weather effects are deleterious to numerous electronic technologies on which modern society relies and as a result can have a significantly adverse economic impact on the nation.

ICON collects data needed to establish the connection between space-weather storms in the ionosphere and storms that occur closer to Earth’s surface, allowing scientists to better predict space weather. These results could help airliners, for example, which today cannot rely solely on GPS satellites to fly and land because signals from these satellites can be distorted by charged-particle storms in the ionosphere.

We are working on the analysis and interpretation of the scientific data that will come from the four science instruments on ICON, including the MIGHTI and FUV instruments. These instruments will provide measurements of both the neutral atmosphere and the electrified ionosphere needed to understand the connection between our weather and space weather.

As NASA’s oldest continuous program, the Explorer program has launched more than 90 missions since 1958, including Explorer 1 which discovered the Earth’s radiation belts and the Nobel Prize-enabling mission Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) mission. It is designed to provide frequent, low-cost access to space for principal investigator-led space science investigations relevant to the heliophysics and astrophysics programs in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.