NASA loses contact with ICON spacecraft

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WASHINGTON — A NASA space science spacecraft launched three years ago has been out of contact with controllers for nearly two weeks after suffering some kind of technical problem.

NASA announced Dec. 7 that the Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) spacecraft has not communicated with ground stations since Nov. 25. The spacecraft, launched in October 2019, had not experienced any major issues reported by NASA before this incident.

The loss of contract would have triggered an eight-day “command loss timer” on the spacecraft, causing it to reset its systems after eight days. NASA said that it has yet to restore contact with the spacecraft even after completing that power cycle.

The agency said engineers believe the problem is with the spacecraft’s avionics or communications subsystems, but have little information to support troubleshooting. “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,” it stated.

NASA said it has ruled out damage to the spacecraft from an explosion of debris impact, noting that observations of the low Earth orbit spacecraft by the Defense Department’s Space Surveillance Network concluded that ICON is intact.

The $252 million ICON mission was designed to study the interaction of space weather with terrestrial weather in the Earth’s ionosphere to better understand what drives variations in the ionosphere. That included measurements that showed the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcanic eruption in January 2022 in the Pacific had effects extending into the ionosphere, where it disrupted electrical currents.

ICON completed its two-year primary mission in late 2021 and was in an interim extended mission. ICON will be part of NASA’s next senior review of heliophysics missions in 2023 to determine if its mission should be extended. NASA projected spending $6.7 million on ICON operations in fiscal year 2023.