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SDL Enables Spacecraft to Explore Near-Space Energy Disturbances

Thursday, Apr. 14, 2016

USU's SDL involved in building the Ionospheric Explorer

The Ionospheric Explorer. Charged particles in Earth's atmosphere — which make up the ionosphere ? create bands of color above Earth’s surface, known as airglow. ICON, depicted in this artist’s concept, will study the ionosphere from a height of about 350 miles to understand how the combined effects of terrestrial weather and space weather influence this ionized layer of particles. (Credit: NASA Goddard's Conceptual Image Lab/B. Monroe)

A suite of space-weather instruments built for NASA by Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory has entered environmental testing at SDL’s Calibration and Optical Research Laboratory.

NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer mission, known as ICON, will explore the area of the atmosphere where weather on Earth and weather in space meet, creating conditions that may affect terrestrial communications. ICON will help scientists better understand the upper atmosphere and to determine the causes of energy variations in that region.

Variations in plasma density within the ionosphere can cause radio communication outages on Earth quickly and unpredictability. Among other issues, the disruption of radio signals has implications for information provided by Global Positioning System satellites — especially near the equator. Americans rely on the information provided by GPS satellites every day for uses that include cell phones, emergency services, aircraft operations, navigation and banking. Observations from the ICON mission will allow scientists to better understand the fundamental processes at work in the ionosphere that drive this unpredictability.

“SDL has built cameras for two of the four main instruments that have been integrated onto ICON and will enable it to measure neutral winds and temperatures and the amounts of energy in the ionosphere,” said Jed Hancock, director of civil space for SDL. “The integration and testing of ICON that is now being conducted at SDL will allow our engineers to verify the integrity of the payload prior to its planned launch next year. We are proud to be a member of the ICON team that will help scientists to better understand how the interaction of Earth and space weather interfere with GPS and communication signals here.”

ICON is part of NASA’s Explorers program.  Explorer missions — which provide investigations from space in the disciplines of physics, geophysics, heliophysics and astrophysics — are highly-focused missions designed to be relatively inexpensive and quickly built. The ICON team is led by Thomas Immel, principal investigator at the University of California, Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory.

About Dynamics Laboratory

A unit of the USU Research Foundation, SDL is one of 14 University Affiliated Research Centers in the nation. Charged with applying basic research to the technology challenges presented in the military and science arenas, SDL has developed revolutionary solutions that are changing the way the world collects and uses data. SDL’s core competencies are electro-optical sensor systems, calibration, thermal management, reconnaissance systems and small satellite technologies. For more information, visit its website.

Contact: Eric Warren, Space Dynamics Laboratory, (435) 713-3054,

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