NASA Prepares to Launch ICON — Again

ICON spacecraft (Credit: NASA)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (NASA PR) — NASA and Northrop Grumman currently are preparing the agency’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, spacecraft and the Pegasus XL rocket at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for ferry to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida by the L-1011 Stargazer aircraft on Oct. 1, 2019.

The launch has been rescheduled to Oct. 10, 2019, following the completion of a joint NASA/Northrop Grumman investigation into a Pegasus sensor reading that was not within normal limits during previous ferry and launch attempt flights. The cause of the issue is understood, and the flight hardware has been modified to address the issue.

Two L-1011 flights with Pegasus were conducted to verify the effectiveness of the modification with no issues. Functional tests are being performed on NASA’s ICON spacecraft, which utilizes Northrop Grumman’s LEOStar-2 platform, to ensure that the ICON spacecraft is ready for the upcoming integration activity, ferry flight and launch. As always, mission success for Pegasus and ICON is the top priority.

ICON will study the frontier of space: the dynamic zone high in our atmosphere where terrestrial weather from below meets space weather above. In this region, the tenuous gases are anything but quiet, as a mix of neutral and charged particles travel through in giant winds. These winds can change on a wide variety of time scales — due to Earth’s seasons, the day’s heating and cooling, and incoming bursts of radiation from the sun.

This region of space and its changes have practical repercussions, given our ever-increasing reliance on technology — this is the area through which radio communications and GPS signals travel. Variations there can result in distortions or even complete disruption of signals.

In order to understand this complicated region of near-Earth space, called the ionosphere, NASA has developed the ICON mission. To understand what drives variability in the ionosphere requires a careful look at a complicated system that is driven by both terrestrial and space weather. ICON will help determine the physics of our space environment and pave the way for mitigating its effects on our technology, communications systems and society.

Editor’s Note: It’s been a long road to launch. Spaceflightnow reports that the ICON launch has been delayed for various reasons since June 2017. Let’s hope the flight takes place this time.

The problems with Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus XL booster have dented the reputation of the intermittently used booster and left Stargazer sitting all buttoned up here in Mojave for longer than planned. The most recent launch was nearly three years ago in December 2016.

Meanwhile, SpaceX won a NASA contract in July to launch a small Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) satellite aboard a Falcon 9 rocket for $50.3 million. The launch, which will use a previously flown first stage, will be cheaper than the $56.4 million Northrop Grumman is charging NASA to launch ICON. And IXPE was originally base lined for a Pegasus XL launch.

With SpaceX cutting launch prices and a new generation of small satellite boosters coming online, it remains to be seen how much longer Northrop Grumman will support Pegasus XL operations.