NASA launched a satellite Thursday night to explore the mysterious and dynamic region where air meets space.
The satellite, called Icon, short for Ionospheric Connection Explorer, launched into orbit after a two-year delay. He was thrown from a plane flying over the Atlantic off the coast of Florida.
Five seconds after the satellite’s release, the connected Pegasus rocket ignited, sending Icon on its way.
The ionosphere is the charged part of the upper atmosphere that extends several hundred miles (kilometers) upwards. It is constantly changing as space weather bombards it from above and Earth’s climate from below, sometimes interrupting radio communications.
“This protected layer is the upper part of our atmosphere. It is our border with space,” said the director of NASA’s heliophysics division, Nicola Fox.
Fox said that many things are happening in this region to be caused only by the sun. Hurricanes, tornadoes and other extreme weather conditions on Earth are also adding energy, he said.
The more scientists know, the best spacecraft and astronauts can protect themselves in orbit through improved forecasts.
The Icon satellite, the size of a refrigerator, will study the glow of air formed from gases in the ionosphere and will also measure the environment charged around the 360-mile-high spacecraft (580 kilometers high).
“It’s a remarkable physics lab,” said lead scientist Thomas Immel of the University of California, Berkeley, who oversees the two-year mission. He added: “The icon goes where the action is.”
A NASA satellite launched last year, Gold, is also studying the upper atmosphere, but from much higher. More missions are planned in the coming years to study the ionosphere, even from the International Space Station.
The icon should have fired in 2017, but problems with the Pegasus rocket launched by Northrop Grumman interfered. Despite the long delay, NASA said the $ 252 million mission did not exceed its price limit. Northrop Grumman also built the satellite.
During a press conference earlier this week, NASA’s launching director, Omar Báez, apologized for the delay.
“We wanted to do things right in this rocket,” said Baez. “We don’t have second chances in this kind of mission.”
He called the release “an amazing and great one; this has taken a long time to arrive.”
Baez said in the end, everything went well. “This is as good as it seems,” he said.
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