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NASA To Launch New ICON Mission

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An artist's sketch of ICON above Earth. The spacecraft will be finally launched on early Wednesday morning from Florida. ICON hopes to study the ionosphere: the point where terrestrial weather meets space weather.   ( NASA )

NASA officially schedules to launch ICON, a spacecraft that will observe the point where Earth meets space, on Wednesday, Nov. 7.

The ICON Mission

ICON stands for Ionospheric Connection Explorer. Its mission is to study the ionosphere, the point in the atmosphere that stretches about 50 to 400 miles above the surface of the Earth. While from the ground, the sky seems clear, the ionosphere is a dynamic area influenced by both the weather in the lower atmosphere and solar energy from space.

The spacecraft was initially scheduled to be launched back in October, but NASA decided to delay the mission to conduct further testing. The spacecraft hopes to capture a closer look at the upper atmosphere — an area that is difficult to study because it is too high for scientific balloons to reach but also too low for satellites.

"After years of work, I'm excited to get into orbit and turn on the spacecraft, open the doors on all our instruments," said Thomas Immel, the principal investigator behind ICON, in a statement. "ICON carries incredible capacity for science. I'm looking forward to surprising results and finally seeing the world through its eyes."

Floating In Airglow

The spacecraft will be working amid the red, green, purple, or yellow light bubble known as airglow that surrounds the Earth. It is created by atoms and molecules in the upper atmosphere that gets too excited after receiving too much energy from the sun.

The process that produces the aurora is also responsible for the existence of the airglow, although the latter shines constantly around the planet and is so much fainter. Airglow is also only visible to the astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

From its position in the low-orbit, ICON will track the airglow in the upper atmosphere. Because the different atmospheric gases produce different colors, scientists can use the images taken by the spacecraft to determine the composition, as well as temperature and density, of the natural glow.

The launch of the ICON spacecraft will take place on early Wednesday morning at 3 a.m. EST at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket will take it to its place in the upper atmosphere.

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