Understanding the Ionosphere: NASA's ICON Mission

An editorial spread about the ionosphere, how skywave propagation works, and the importance and value of the 2018 NASA ICON mission.

Date: March 2017

Supervisor: Dr. Jodie Jenkinson | UC Berkeley ICON Mission

Audience: General


Adobe Photoshop

Adobe Illustrator


Development Process

Initial Research

For this project, I had the opportunity to choose whatever topic I liked. I wanted to investigate something topical and that hadn't been visualized before. I came to the conclusion that upcoming missions at NASA likely had some visuals, but I could fill in some knowledge gaps. I came across the Ionospheric Connection Explorer Mission and was surprised to find a lack of visual support detailing the mission and its scientific context. I consulted a variety of online resources to understand the science of the ionosphere and the current work done leading up to ICON's June 2017 launch.

Building the Narrative

During my research, I filled in several pages worth of information pertaining to the science background for this mission. I noticed that since I was knew to the topic, the questions I was forming as a researcher were informing the kinds of questions my audience would likely want to know as well. As a result, this inspired the narrative that I chose to tell in my piece.

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Once I had all the components of my narrative, I began to composite a three-page spread. I knew coming in to the project that I wanted to challenge myself to create an exploded-view technical drawing, so I designed that first and built the other components around it. Resolving the layout was a natural process and did not take long to come to a piece I was happy with.

Planning the Layout
Illustrating the Visuals

To make the exploded-view technical drawing of the ICON spacecraft, I was able to download a 3D model of the spacecraft from NASA's website. I opened the model in Cinema4D and extracted various instruments off the spacecraft to create the exploded view. I positioned the spacecraft as desired and used it as reference to create the final render.


For the scientific data, I researched diagrams that I believed successfully communicated the science being described in the text. I reproduced these figures, and in some cases adapted them to improve the science communication or better fit the work's aesthetic. References to original sources are listed in the piece where applicable.

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Cleaning up with UC Berkeley

I sent my final draft to the Principal Investigator and researchers at UC Berkeley for quality control and revisions. Over an 8 month period, several iterations of the poster were created, finessing various qualities like instrument arrangement, data visualization, and narrative. Ultimately, a project timeline was removed in this step due to a dynamically changing schedule.

The Wrap-Up

The final piece was composed in Adobe Illustrator. The background image and spacecraft illustration were created and imported from Adobe Photoshop. Final revisions included minor adjustments to text and graphical elements (leader lines, colours, etc.)

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I am really pleased with the final outcome of this project. The scientific story being told here is easy to follow and is presented in a  dynamic manner that is engaging and visually pleasing. My hopes for this piece are that people find it informative and learn to appreciate the great science that institutions like NASA and its research affiliates discover everyday.

© 2018 by Mark Belan.