A mysterious region of outer space just above Earth’s atmosphere is causing spacecraft to slow down, and researchers are trying to figure out why. The same area has interfered with GPS and other technology, prompting NASA to launch a recent mission to determine the cause.
“At about 250 miles above Earth, the spacecraft feel more drag, as if they hit an obstacle,” said Mark Conde, a physicist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and principal investigator for NASA’s Cusp Region Experiment-2, or CREX-2 mission, in a press release announcing the new work.
According to the same release, the air at this altitude and at this location above the North Pole is “noticeably denser” than the rest of the air in the spacecraft’s orbit, which led to the deceleration. However, as the release notes, “no one knows why or how.”
In trying to solve this mystery, the researchers first looked at the area of space that caused this strange effect. And they discovered that it’s not just spacecraft that are having these problems.
“Strange things are happening in Earth’s atmosphere at high latitudes,” the release explains. “Around local noon, when the Sun is at its highest point, a funnel-shaped tear in our planet’s magnetic field passes overhead.
Earth’s magnetic field normally protects us from the stream of charged particles known as the solar wind, but this periodic tear above the North Pole allows this wind to penetrate directly into Earth’s atmosphere, causing all sorts of trouble.
“Radio and GPS signals behave strangely as they pass through this part of the sky,” the study release notes, and then talks about the most recent mystery.
“Over the past 20 years, scientists and spacecraft operators have noticed something else unusual when spacecraft pass through this area: They slow down.”
That’s where NASA’s CREX-2 mission is headed.
When it arrives, “the rocket will eject 20 containers the size of soda cans, each with its own small rocket engine, in four directions.
These containers are designed to burst at different altitudes, where they will release vapor beacons, which are essentially particles found in fireworks that glow. Researchers hope these particles will form a three-dimensional grid around the target area, allowing the team behind the mission to figure out the cause of the spacecraft’s mysterious slowdown.
“The wind will paint the sky with these glowing clouds,” the release explains, “showing how the air moves in this unusual area of the atmosphere.”
“The team is optimistic,” the same release adds, “The sun is in a more active stage of its natural cycle this time, increasing the chances that space weather conditions will be favorable for their mission to study an unusually dense region of the atmosphere.”
“The team is optimistic,” the same release adds, “The Sun is in a more active stage of its natural cycle this time, increasing the chances that space weather conditions will be favorable for their mission to study the unusually dense region of the atmosphere.”
According to a December 1 NASA update, “The CREX-2 payload was successfully launched at 3:25 a.m. ET from the Andøya Space Center in Norway.”
In addition, “Preliminary reports indicate that the flight was successful, and the vapor ampoules worked as planned. Good data were obtained, including data from the vapor imaging team.”
Now we await the results and, hopefully, the solution to the mystery.