NASA has launched a satellite, Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) to explore the mysterious, dynamic region where air meets space.

About NASA’s ICON and GOLD missions

  • Together these missions provide the most comprehensive observations of Earth’s upper atmosphere.
  • GOLD provides an overarching view of the entire western hemisphere, while ICON zooms in for close up details.
  • These missions help us understand an unpredictable area of near Earth space that can affect how we live and explore.
  • ICON studies each of the many forces affecting simultaneously affecting the upper atmosphere, searching for cause and effect relationships. It will also study the airglow formed from gases in the ionosphere and also measure the charged environment right around the spacecraft which is at a level of 580 kilometers above the Earth’s surface.
  • During the day GOLD studies how the thermosphere responds to solar activity. At night GOLD examines disruptions in the ionosphere i.e unpredictable bubbles in the charged gas that appear over equator and tropics, sometimes interfering with radio communications.

About Ionosphere

  • The ionosphere is charged part of the upper atmosphere extending several hundred miles (kilometers) up. 
  • Due to the ability of ionized atmospheric gases to refract high frequency (HF, or shortwave) radio waves, the ionosphere can reflect radio waves directed into the sky back toward the Earth.
  • It’s in constant flux as space weather bombards it from above and Earth weather from below, sometimes disrupting radio communications.

Atmospheric layers and their characteristics