NASA ICON spacecraft launches Wednesday to explore ionosphere

On Wednesday, November 7, NASA will launch its Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) spacecraft to study the ionosphere. This boundary lies between space and Earth, being home to a "sea" of charged electrons and ions; it reacts to both lower atmosphere weather and solar energy, the result being space weather. NASA's ICON will study this, offering unprecedented scientific data.

NASA details the importance of the ionosphere to humans in its video below, where it presents a render of ICON deploying in the boundary. NASA explains that its spacecraft will track "airglow," a faint aurora-like glowing light resulting from excited gases.

The ionosphere is home to astronauts, satellites, and radio signals that humans depend on for communication. Over the last decade, the space agency explains, researchers have found increasing evidence that the ionosphere is impacted by not only solar energy, but also terrestrial weather that happens below it.

The ionosphere has been tricky for humans to study due to the difficultly in reaching it — though it's too high for scientific balloons, it is too low for satellites. That's where ICON comes in. The spacecraft is equipped with instruments capable of gathering data in the boundary and sending it back to humans on Earth.

NASA has scheduled a 90 minute launch window for ICON starting at 3AM EST on November 7. The launch will take place with the Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. This follows the GOLD ionospheric mission launch back in January 2018.