The National Center for Atmospheric Research, commonly abbreviated as NCAR, recently was awarded $6.5 million by NASA to deploy a shoebox-sized spacecraft into the space with an instrument designed to record howling thermospheric winds, which may reach speeds of over 300 miles per hour in the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

The thermosphere, which is the highest layer of atmosphere which thins into the space and hosts orbiting satellites as well as dazzling auroras, can have an impact on radio and GPS communications. Despite their potential for disruption, thermospheric winds are rarely detected.

NCAR’s new rectangular “CubeSat,” which will measure a little over a foot on the longest side, will provide scientists with a plethora of fresh observational data that will help them improve upper-atmosphere models and, in turn, better predict consequences to communication systems as well as satellites. WindCube, the CubeSat, is expected to be ready for flight in three years.

NCAR Director Everette Joseph commented, “This is a fantastic accomplishment for NCAR as well as its High-Altitude Observatory (HAO).” “While the observatory has previously supported several satellite missions, this is the first one that our organization is spearheading.  I’m thrilled that we’ll be able to contribute crucial data to the scientific community for a basic study that will assist society better prepare for changes in Earth’s upper atmosphere.”

WindCube data will be used to improve upper-atmosphere models, which can be difficult to precisely depict in the real world. Heliophysics Flight Opportunities in Research and Technology program of NASA, in collaboration with the NASA’s Space Weather Science Application, has announced four additional CubeSat missions. The National Science Foundation supports NCAR.

The strong heating of Sun at that height drives the thermospheric winds; the area can be over 350 degrees Fahrenheit hotter during the day than at night. Large-scale oscillations in the lowest layers of the atmosphere, like atmospheric tides and planetary waves, and also the solar wind, influence the winds.

The effect of thermospheric winds on the radio waves is connected to how they impact the ionosphere, that is composed of the electrically charged ions in upper atmosphere. Overlapping the thermosphere are charged zones that are continually changing and evolving. The ionosphere can reflect, distort, absorb, and moreover alter radio waves based on its regional features at any particular time, sometimes assisting and sometimes obstructing propagation.

The thermosphere’s neutral winds blow over these charged structures that are in the ionosphere, causing the ionosphere to rise or fall, changing its features. Winds can also affect how the ionosphere responds to geomagnetic storms caused by solar activity.

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