Ionosphere Current Affairs - 2020

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ICON Space Weather Satellite: launched by NASA to Study Earth’s Ionosphere

NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) has launched a satellite called ICON or Ionospheric Connection Explorer to explore the mysterious, dynamic region where air meets space. The ICON satellite rocketed into orbit following a two-year delay and was dropped from a plane flying over the Atlantic off the Florida coast.

About ICON (Ionospheric Connection Explorer)

It will study the link between space weather and Earth weather. Five seconds after the satellite’s release, the attached Pegasus rocket ignited and sent Icon on its way.

Icon, a refrigerator-size satellite should have soared in 2017, but problems with air-launched Pegasus rocket interfered. Despite the long delay, as per the NASA this $252 million mission did not exceed its price cap.

The satellite has been built by Northrop Grumman, an American global aerospace and defense technology company.

Purpose: It will study the airglow formed from gases in ionosphere and also measure the charged environment right around the 580-kilometer-high (360-mile-high) spacecraft.

Way Forward: A NASA satellite called Gold was launched in 2018 is also studying the upper atmosphere, but from much higher up. Similarly, more missions are planned in coming years to study the ionosphere, including from International Space Station (ISS).

What is Ionosphere?

The ionosphere is the charged part of upper atmosphere extending several hundred miles up. It is in constant flux as space weather bombards it from above and Earth weather from below, sometimes disrupting radio communications.

It is our frontier with space and thus act as a protected layer present at the top of our atmosphere.

Importance: Besides Sun, the hurricanes, tornadoes and other extreme weather conditions on Earth are also adding energy in this region. Therefore, the more scientists know, the better spacecraft and astronauts can be protected in orbit through improved forecasting.

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NASA to launch two missions — GOLD and ICON to explore the ionosphere

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) will launch two missions — GOLD and ICON later this year. They will team up to explore the ionosphere, located 96 km above Earth’s surface.

The Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD) mission will be launched in January 2018 and Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) will be launched later this year.

Key Facts

The two missions will be complementary to each other. ICON will launched in low-Earth orbit (LEO) located at 560 km above Earth, like a close-up camera. GOLD will be launched in geostationary orbit over Western Hemisphere, about 35,398 km above earth. It will help in full-disk view of ionosphere and upper atmosphere beneath it every half hour.

The two missions can cooperate with each other when ICON passes through GOLD’s field of view and each mission can get snapshot of same region. This overlap in their data will make it easier to identify reasons for changes in upper atmosphere at a given time.

One of missions’ goals is to measure how upper atmosphere changes in response to hurricanes and geomagnetic storms. GOLD will also explore how upper atmosphere reacts to geomagnetic storms, which are temporary disturbances of Earth’s magnetic field caused by solar activity.

At night, GOLD will examine disruptions in ionosphere, which are mainly dense, unpredictable bubbles of charged gas that appear over equator and tropics, sometimes interfere with radio communications.


The ionosphere is located between 60 and 400 km above the mesopause. It contains electrically charged particles known as ions, and hence, it is known as ionosphere. Radio waves transmitted from the earth are reflected back to the earth by this layer and is used for radio propagation to distant places on the Earth. In this layer temperature starts increasing with height.

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