If you venture too close to one of Earth’s poles, you’ll notice something rather strange happening to any gadgets using radio waves, satellite connections, or GPS. Now, NASA is on a mission to find out why.
Well, three missions to be exact. NASA is backing a range of initiatives to investigate the northern polar cusp, a funnel in space that’s thought to be behind some of the weird space phenomena happening above the poles.
This funnel, and the matching one at the South Pole, allows solar winds from the Sun to get right down to Earth’s atmosphere – in other words, here the solar winds aren’t reflected back out into space by the Earth’s magnetic field, as they are across the rest of the planet.
The aim of the three missions is to get a closer look at what’s happening, and to investigate other strange occurrences in the same place – like the unexplained patch of dense atmosphere in the northern polar cusp.
“A little extra mass 200 miles [322 kilometres] up might seem like no big deal,” says space physicist Mark Conde from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the principal investigator on the Cusp Region Experiment-2 (CREX-2) mission.
“But the pressure change associated with this increased mass density, if it occurred at ground level, would cause a continuous hurricane stronger than anything seen in meteorological records.”
This strange blob of density could potentially cause problems for spacecraft and satellites (knocking them closer to space debris, for example).