Virginia Tech researchers contribute to upcoming NASA mission

Published: Oct. 9, 2019 at 10:12 PM EDT
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A NASA explorer mission slated to launch this week has a connection to one of our hometowns. Researchers at Virginia Tech have been working more than 12 years to make this trip to the Ionosphere possible.

The Ionosphere is between 60 and 600 miles above the Earth. It’s the planet’s most outer layer before outer space.

“We’re really trying to explore this connection between weather systems in our atmosphere that we might experience outside and also this environment on the edge of space,” said project scientist Scott England.

England leads the team at Space@VT and across the United States to be able to better predict extreme changes from weather to GPS signal interference.

“Right now sometimes we can see that it is happening right in that moment, but if we could predict it, then we could make these systems more reliable,” England said.

The name of the spacecraft headed to the Ionosphere is ICON, or the Ionospheric Connection Explorer. It will collect data from the edge of the Earth to understand these changes by measuring things like wind speed and density of the atmosphere. England said ICON is like the size of a large refrigerator at 500 to 600 pounds.

ICON will also be sending back data on more eye-catching phenomena such as airglow, or the colorful lights you can see in the atmosphere in the Polar Regions of the world. England said the Ionosphere is impacted by charged particles and energetic radiation coming from outer space, and the colors we see are those particles hitting the atmosphere.

“As soon as we get those first bits of data back, we’ll be making plots and we will be slicing and dicing this data and really trying to see what is it telling us about this region and what are we learning,” England said.

ICON was scheduled to launch Wednesday, but due to bad weather in Florida, they have to delay until Thursday.

The mission is planned to last two years.

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