Satellite safety in the thermosphere: mapping the danger zones

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Project Description: 

In February 2022, SpaceX lost 38 Starlink internet satellites due to a geomagnetic storm. The storm hit Earth’s atmosphere and caused to heat and swell at the satellites staging altitude, increasing the density there and the subsequent air drag. The Starlink satellites burned up in the atmosphere 4 days after launch, resulting in an estimated 100 million USD worth of damages. The density of the thermosphere – where thousands of low-Earth-orbit (LEO) satellites reside – is a vital parameter for us to understand and eventually, predict. The February 2022 geomagnetic storm was only moderate, and yet its timing with SpaceX’s launch window caused catastrophic loss of resources. An extreme space weather event could feasibly affect satellites in orbit, or generate thermospheric “danger zones” by which launches may not be possible for days or even weeks afterwards. This project will investigate thermospheric densities worldwide using data from the ESA Swarm mission, NASA’S GRACE, and any other available datasets. The goal will be to perform statistics on when, where, by how much, and for how long the thermospheric density remains enhanced following geomagnetic storms. In particular, the asymmetries between the northern and southern hemispheres will be explored. All thermosphere density data to complete this project is currently openly available from the European Space Agency ( Space weather indices, which measure the amount of geomagnetic activity and provide indications of geomagnetic storms, are available publicly from NASA’s space physics data facility ( Project requirements: This project will require good programming and data handling skills, but the chosen language is flexible. Languages such as Python, Matlab, or IDL, are all suitable choices. A basic understanding of Earth’s thermosphere region is also important, including its composition, variability, and interactions with the ionosphere.
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This Project Is Offered At The Following Node(s): 


E-mail Address: 
University of Cape Town (UCT)


E-mail Address: 
University of Saskatchewan (Canada)