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Thu Apr 25, 2019, 05:33 PM

High-Altitude Auroras Create 'Speed Bumps' for Satellites

By Mike Wall, Space.com Senior Writer | April 25, 2019 11:47am ET

- click for image -


Astronaut Thomas Pesquet, with the European Space Agency, photographed the aurora over Northern Europe from on board the International Space Station.
Credit: ESA/NASA

A high-altitude version of the northern lights can create a headwind for some orbiting satellites, a new study reports.

The auroras help transport pockets of air higher up into Earth's atmosphere, increasing the drag on spacecraft that zip around Earth at relatively low altitudes, researchers in the new study said.

"We knew these satellites were hitting 'speed bumps,' or 'upwellings,' which cause them to slow down and drop in altitude," study lead author Marc Lessard, a physicist at the University of New Hampshire, said in a statement. "But on this mission, we were able to unlock some of the mystery around why this happens, by discovering that the bumps are much more complicated and structured."

The mission Lessard referenced is Rocket Experiment for Neutral Upwelling 2 (RENU2), a brief suborbital flight that launched from Norway in December 2015.


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