NASA loses contact with ICON atmosphere-studying satellite in Earth orbit

satellite in orbit with aurora in behind
An artist's view of NASA's Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, satellite. (Image credit: NASA)

NASA recently lost contact with an atmosphere-studying satellite working beyond its design lifetime.

NASA's Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) fell out of contact on Nov. 25, and the mission team has not been able to hail the spacecraft in the weeks since, agency officials wrote in a brief statement on Wednesday (Dec. 7).

"The team is currently still working to establish a connection," NASA officials wrote. "Working with the Department of Defense's Space Surveillance Network, the team has verified that ICON remains intact."

In pictures: NASA's Ionospheric Connection Explorer satellite mission

ICON's hardware includes a "command loss timer" designed to reset the spacecraft if it doesn't talk to ground controllers for eight days. But the spacecraft remains silent after the reset completed on Monday (Dec. 5), NASA added in the blog post.

ICON, which launched in October 2019, is exploring facets of Earth's ionosphere that other spacecraft have not looked for before. The ionosphere — a layer of Earth's atmosphere that stretches from roughly 50 miles to 400 miles (80 to 640 kilometers) above our planet — changes constantly with solar radiation. Such variations can affect communications technologies.

The mission passed its two-year prime mission in December 2021 and is working under an extended mission.

Troubleshooting continues, as the mission team explores the probable source of the issue to "problems within the avionics or radio-frequency communications subsystems," NASA officials added.

It is unclear right now whether the spacecraft will call home again, the blog post noted. "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."

Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of "Why Am I Taller?" (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: