Orbit: ICON will fly in an orbit around Earth at a 27-degree inclination and at an altitude of some 360 miles. This places it in position to observe the ionosphere around the equator. ICON will aim its instruments for a view of what's happening at the lowest boundary of space at about 55 miles up to 360 miles.
The Ionospheric Connection Explorer will study the frontier of space: the dynamic zone high in our atmosphere where terrestrial weather from below meets space weather above. In this region, the tenuous gases are anything but quiet, as a mix of neutral and charged particles travel through in giant winds. These winds can change on a wide variety of time scales -- due to Earth's seasons, the day's heating and cooling, and incoming bursts of radiation from the sun.
This region of space and its changes have practical repercussions, given our ever-increasing reliance on technology -- this is the area through which radio communications and GPS signals travel. Variations there can result in distortions or even complete disruption of signals. In order to understand this complicated region of near-Earth space, called the ionosphere, NASA has developed the ICON mission. To understand what drives variability in the ionosphere requires a careful look at a complicated system that is driven by both terrestrial and space weather.
ICON will help determine the physics of our space environment and pave the way for mitigating its effects on our technology, communications systems and society.
NASA's ICON mission, depicted in this artist’s concept animation, will study the ionosphere from a height of about 350 miles to understand how the combined effects of terrestrial weather and space weather influence this ionized layer of particles. Credit: NASA