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ECE faculty and students will help build NASA's next space weather satellite


Rick Kubetz, Engineering at Illinois

Three faculty members from the ECE Department—Farzad Kamalabadi, Jonathan J. Makela, and Gary Swenson—are part of a multi-institutional team that will design, build, and operate NASA’s next heliophysics satellite mission, the Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON).

The mission, which will include a student-designed and built instrument from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, will provide space-based observations to study Earth's ionosphere and thermosphere as part of the agency's Heliophysics Explorer Program.


Farzad Kamalabadi
Farzad Kamalabadi
Led by Thomas Immel of the University of California, Berkeley, and scheduled for launch in 2017, ICON will probe the extreme variability of Earth's ionosphere with in-situ and remote-sensing instruments from its orbit 550 kilometers (345 miles) above Earth. The ionosphere is the region at the edge of space where the sun ionizes the air to create constantly shifting streams and sheets of charged particles. Fluctuations in the ionosphere—a form of space weather—cause interference in signals from communications and global positioning satellites. Such space weather effects are deleterious to numerous electronic technologies on which modern society relies and as a result can have a significantly adverse economic impact on the nation. 


ICON will collect data needed to establish the connection between space-weather storms in the ionosphere and storms that occur closer to Earth’s surface, allowing scientists to better predict space weather. These results could help airliners, for example, which today cannot rely solely on GPS satellites to fly and land because signals from these satellites can be distorted by charged-particle storms in the ionosphere.


Jonathan J Makela
Jonathan J Makela
"The selection of ICON for this highly competitive NASA program is a result of years of sustained and focused effort by the investigator team with contributions from the broader community of geospace scientists,” Kamalabadi stated. “It is testimony to the increasing national recognition of the importance of studying the transition region between our atmosphere and space, where most of our space assets and critical infrastructure reside."


Makela will serve as program lead at Illinois working with Kamalabadi and Swenson on the analysis and interpretation of the scientific data coming from the four science instruments on ICON. These instruments will provide measurements of both the neutral atmosphere and the electrified ionosphere needed to understand the connection between our weather and space weather.


Gary R Swenson
Gary R Swenson
"As co-investigators and members of the science team, Kamalabadi, Swenson, and I will integrate and interpret the data from all of the instruments on ICON to achieve the science goals of the mission,” Makela explained. “ICON will provide a more complete characterization of this region of the upper atmosphere than ever before, allowing us to understand how the weather in the lower atmosphere couples into the ionosphere, influencing space weather."


Another important aspect of the ICON mission is the Student Collaboration, a planned mission activity that is still awaiting final funding approval. Designed and built by engineering students at Illinois, the Student Atmospheric Gravity-wave Experiment (SAGE) flight instrument will observe small-scale atmospheric gravity waves. This collaboration is part of the Educational and Public Outreach element of the ICON mission, with a focus on the education and experience that students will gain in delivering a flight instrument. Swenson will manage the student collaboration portion of the project; Kamalabadi and Makela are co-advisors on the project.


"We are elated with the opportunity to be involved with ICON and the Education and Public Outreach Program through SAGE,” said Swenson. “ICON will study the large-scale wave energy that propagates upward from the lower atmosphere, coupling into the ionosphere. The SAGE experiment will measure small-scale waves, as an added benefit to the mission. Illinois students will be involved in all aspects of building and delivering the SAGE instrument."


As NASA’s oldest continuous program, the Explorer program has launched more than 90 missions since 1958, including Explorer 1 which discovered the Earth's radiation belts and the Nobel Prize-enabling mission Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE). It is designed to provide frequent, low-cost access to space for principal investigator-led space science investigations relevant to the heliophysics and astrophysics programs in NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.