Mysterious Area in Space Causes Spacecraft to Slow Down

A mysterious area of outer space directly above the Earth’s atmosphere causes spacecraft to slow down, and researchers are trying to figure out why. This same area has foiled GPS and other technologies, causing NASA to launch the latest fact-finding mission.


“At around 250 miles above Earth, spacecraft feel more drag, sort of like they’ve hit a speed bump,” said Mark Conde, a physicist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the principal investigator for NASA’s Cusp Region Experiment-2, or CREX-2, sounding rocket mission, in a press release announcing the new effort.

According to that same release, the air at that altitude and location above the North Pole is “noticeably denser” than the rest of the air in the spacecraft’s orbit, leading to the slow down. However, as the release points out, “no one knows why, or how.”


In an attempt to solve this mystery, the researchers first looked at the region of space causing this mayhem. And they found that it wasn’t just spacecraft having these issues.

“Strange things happen in Earth’s atmosphere at high latitudes,” the release explains. “Around local noon, when the Sun is at its highest point, a funnel-shaped gap in our planet’s magnetic field passes overhead.”

Earth’s magnetic field normally shields us from the stream of charged particles known as the solar wind, but this periodic gap above the North Pole allows that wind to stream right down to Earth’s atmosphere, causing all kinds of mayhem.

“Radio and GPS signals behave strangely when they travel through this part of the sky,” the study release notes, before highlighting the most recent mystery. “In the last 20 years, scientists and spacecraft operators noticed something else unusual as spacecraft pass through this region: They slow down.”

This is where NASA’s CREX-2 mission comes in.  

Once on site, “the rocket will eject 20 soda can-sized canisters, each with its own small rocket motor, in four directions.”

These canisters are designed to rupture at different altitudes, where they’ll release vapor trackers, which are basically particles found in fireworks that glow. Researchers hope these particles will form a three dimensional grid within the target area, allowing the team behind the mission to figure out the cause of the mysterious spacecraft deceleration.

“The wind will paint the sky with these glowing clouds,” the release explains, “revealing how air moves in this unusual section of the atmosphere.”

Colorful clouds formed by the release of vapor tracers from two rockets allow scientists to measure winds. Credits: NASA/Lee Wingfield


“The team is optimistic,” the same release adds, “the Sun is in a more active stage of its natural cycle this time around, increasing the chances that space weather conditions will be favorable for their mission to study an unusually dense region of the atmosphere.”


According to a December 1st update from NASA, “The CREX-2 payload was successfully launched at 3:25 a.m. EST from the Andøya Space Center in Norway.”

Furthermore, “preliminary reports are that the flight was successful and the ampules carrying the vapors performed as planned.  Good data was received including data from the vapor imaging team.”

Now, we await the results, and hopefully a solution to the mystery.

Follow and connect with author Christopher Plain on Twitter: @plain_fiction