One area in the Earth’s atmosphere is proving that space is not as uniform as many believe.
This area which is around 250 miles above the North Pole has a funnel-shaped gap which opens up in the Earth’s magnetic field every day at noon local time, when the Sun is at its highest point
Mostly, the magnetic field prevents any particles of the Sun reaching the planet, but the gap creates a space where solar winds interact with the planet’s atmosphere causing issues for satellites and spacecrafts.
Besides interfering with radio and GPS signals in the region, NASA scientists have also noticed that spacecrafts passing through the region- known as a polar cusp- seem to slow down.
NASA are trying to find the reason behind these strange occurrences.
What is NASA’s CREX-2 mission to study the speed bump above the North Pole?
NASA will be launching the Cusp Region Experiment-2 (CREX-2) mission on Wednesday, December 1.
The aim is to find out more about this area above the North Pole, by firing a sounding rocket into the sky from Norway.
Scientists already known that spacecrafts passing through the polar cusp slow down because the air there is denser than at any other point in the Earth’s orbit, but there has yet to be explanation of why or how this happens.
Talking about the mission, Mark Conder, CREX-2 principal investigator and physicist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said: "At around 250 miles above Earth, spacecraft feel more drag, sort of like they've hit a speed bump."
The CREX-2 mission was meant to happen in 2019, but was postponed because of unsuitable weather conditions then, after which the Covid pandemic caused more delays.
Now that the Sun is more active and Covid restrictions have loosened, NASA is hoping to get their study of the polar cusp underway.
What is a polar cusp?
Usually the density of the atmosphere drops with altitude, but remains consistent horizontally.
But things are different in the polar cusp, where the air is about one-and-a-half times denser than the surrounding air at the same altitude.
The CREX-2 mission is set to investigate this additional mass and find out what is supporting it. The rocket will launch into the sky, ejecting 20 soda can-sized canisters which will release vapour tracers that produce colourful, glowing clouds.
Scientists are planning to monitor how air moves through these clouds in the hopes of understanding what’s happening around the polar cusp.
Professor Conde said: "You can’t just increase the mass in a region by a factor of 1.5 and do nothing else, or the sky will fall."