ICON, or the Ionospheric Connection Explorer, is set for launch on 7 October local time.

By Daniel Herborn

Posted on November 7, 2018

Header image: The earth surrounded by airglow (photo: NASA)

The satellite is set to launch between 3.00am and 4.30am EST (9.30am GMT) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Once launched, the ICON will position itself some 560 km (350 miles) above our planet, right at the intersection of earth and space weather.

The satellite will study the atmosphere through observation of airglow

From this vantage point among the bright bands of red and green or purple and yellow light known as airglow, ICON will be able to document the upper atmosphere.

Previously, airglow could only be studied from the International Space Station or from earth by using specialist sensitive camera equipment.

“Each atmospheric gas has its own favored airglow color depending on the gas, altitude region, and excitation process, so you can use airglow to study different layers of the atmosphere,” Doug Rowland, an Astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said in a statement. “We’re not studying airglow per se, but using it as a diagnostic.” It also has the capacity to measure particles and track their movement.

Airglow is the result of atoms and molecules in the upper atmosphere shedding the excess energy they take in from the sun. Unlike auroras, airglow is constant.

Above: Artist’s impression of the magnetic field line (shown here as white lines) which connect the North and South poles. Together with terrestrial weather, they create airglow.(Photo: NASA)

By studying airglow, scientists help to learn more about the temperature and composition of the upper atmosphere and the high-altitude winds that pass through the ionosphere.

The ICON launch was originally scheduled for October 2017 but has faced several delays.

It will work in conjunction with the Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD mission), another NASA project, which was launched earlier in 2018 to explore the area between the earth’s atmosphere and the lowest reaches of space where communications satellites are in orbit.