Space

NASA Lost Contact With ICON Spacecraft

NASA’s ICON to Explore Boundary Between Earth and Space

Illustration of ICON spacecraft. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Mary Pat Hrybyk-Keith

NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) team lost contact with the spacecraft on November 25, 2022. The ICON spacecraft is equipped with a built-in onboard command loss timer that will power cycle or reset the spacecraft after contact is lost for eight days. After the power cycle was complete on December 5, the team was still unable to acquire a downlink signal from the spacecraft. Currently, the team is still working to establish a connection.

Working with the Department of Defense’s Space Surveillance Network, the team has verified that ICON remains intact.

NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer mission launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on October 10, 2019, to study the effects of terrestrial weather and solar influences on the Earth’s ionosphere from a height of about 350 miles. Credit: Maria Estacion, U.S. Navy

The ICON mission team is working to troubleshoot the issue and has narrowed the cause of the communication loss to problems within the avionics or radio-frequency communications subsystems. The team is currently unable to determine the health of the spacecraft, and the lack of a downlink signal could be indicative of a system failure.

ICON launched on October 10, 2019, and completed its two-year prime mission science objectives in December 2021. It has been operating in extended mission status since that time.

ICON, the Ionospheric Connection Explorer studied the frontier of space: the dynamic zone high in our atmosphere where Earth weather and space weather meet. 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. ICON helped determine the physics of our space environment and its findings will help pave the way for mitigating its effects on our technology, communications systems, and society. 

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By
Denise Hill, NASA

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