A spacecraft that is expected to provide insight into a mysterious zone high in Earth’s atmosphere was on display at Vandenberg Air Force Base on Monday, less than 48 hours before it was scheduled to travel to the middle of the Pacific Ocean for an air-based, mid-June launch.

NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) satellite, and Orbital ATK’s Pegasus XL rocket and Stargazer aircraft were set to leave VAFB on Wednesday to go to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean's Marshall Islands. It is from there that the ICON mission will be launched June 14 — June 15 in the continental U.S. — aboard the Pegasus rocket from the Stargazer aircraft midflight.

“This is much more exciting than a ground launch,” Bryan Baldwin, the Pegasus program manager for Orbital ATK, said Monday from an airfield at VAFB.

It is anticipated that the ICON mission will provide some answers to mysteries that have long baffled scientists.

The ICON satellite was built to study the zone in Earth's atmosphere where terrestrial weather from below meets space weather above. The explorer, it is expected, will help determine the physics of Earth's space environment and pave the way for mitigating its effects — such as signal disruptions — on technology, communications systems and society.

“It’s looking at the in-between region between the top edge of our atmosphere and space,” said Omar Baez, NASA’s launch director for the mission. “There’s an area in there where solar activity does things to that atmosphere or that region that affects radio communications all the way from Florida to Alaska, sometimes.”

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Baez related that activity to solar thunderstorms. ICON will focus on how those charged and neutral gases in the upper atmosphere behave and interact, according to NASA.

“Several forces — including shifts in neutral winds, pressure gradients and solar activity — act on the ionosphere simultaneously; ICON was designed to study each of them individually, making it easier for scientists to elucidate cause-and-effect relationships,” read a portion of a January 2018 NASA release on the mission.

The ICON spacecraft, which arrived at VAFB in early May, is set for a dramatic exit from the ground.

The Pegasus XL rocket carrying the satellite will be flown aboard the Stargazer airplane to an altitude of about 39,000 feet and then dropped. It is slated to free-fall for about five seconds before a first-stage motor in the rocket is set to kick on and perform a pull-up maneuver to begin heading into low-Earth orbit.

“It’s much more challenging than a ground launch, in that you’ve got to hit a particular spot in space at a certain time while you’re moving pretty fast,” Baldwin said.

For more information on the mission, visit www.nasa.gov/icon.

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Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.



Willis Jacobson covers news and other issues, primarily those that affect the Lompoc Valley and Vandenberg Air Force Base, for Lee Central Coast News. He is a graduate of The University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications.