SDL builds, tests new satellite to study ionosphere

April 14, 2016 | HJNews
NASA Goddard's Conceptual Image Lab. An artist illustration of what the Ionospheric Explorer will look like.

Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Lab is testing weather instruments for a NASA-multi-institution mission that could help researchers better understand how the interaction of Earth and space weather interfere with GPS and communication signals.

SDL built the two cameras for the Ionospheric Connection Explorer mission, or ICON, and are working on integrating all of the instruments onto the payload and conducting environmental testing to make sure it is ready for launch next year. SDL hopes to get its work done by July.

“Space Dynamics Lab has a long history of doing this kind of testing for space instruments,” said Jed Hancock, director of civil space for SDL. “We are really excited that NASA and our partners at UC Berkeley can trust us with this work in … designing, building successful space instruments.”

ICON is a mission led by UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory, with oversight from NASA.

Thomas Immel, the principal investigator for ICON at UC Berkeley, said the school chose SDL to work with on this project.

“As UC Berkeley saw additional capability at SDL, scope was added to SDL’s effort, including the FUV camera design and build, and also the integration and test of the complete science payload,” Immel wrote in an email. “SDL has the NASA-mission experience, technical expertise and necessary facilities to carry out all of these tasks.”

ICON is a satellite that will will explore the region where earth weather meets space weather, called the ionosphere.

Hancock described the activity in the ionosphere, calling it a “the tug of war between the earth atmosphere and space environment, no man’s land.”

According to an SDL news release, variations in plasma density within the ionosphere can cause radio communication outages on Earth quickly and unpredictably. The disruption of radio signals has implications for information provided by Global Positioning System satellites.

In recent years, Hancock said, NASA missions have “surprised us all” by showing researchers the dramatic variabilities that often occurs with the weather on Earth and the weather in space.

“ICON will be the first mission to compare the impact of these two drivers, solar input and earth weather input, on the change on the space environment that surrounds us,” Hancock said. “That has drastic impacts into our understanding of effects of space-based systems like GPS. Our entire world runs on GPS.”

Hancock continued, “by having that greater understanding, it gives them (scientists) a lot of tools and ability to understand how space works by knowing that the weather here affects the environment our satellites fly in.”

NASA stated in a recent news release the ICON mission will “help determine the physics of our space environment and pave the way for mitigating its effects on our technology, communications systems and society.”