Gas-surface interactions modelling influence on satellite aerodynamics and thermosphere mass density

Günther March*, Jose Van Den Ijssel, Christian Siemes, Pieter N.A.M. Visser, Eelco N. Doornbos, Marcin Pilinski

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
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The satellite acceleration data from the CHAMP, GRACE, GOCE, and Swarm missions provide detailed information on the thermosphere density over the last two decades. Recent work on reducing errors in modelling the spacecraft geometry has greatly reduced scale differences between the thermosphere data sets from these missions. However, residual inconsistencies between the data sets and between data and models are still present. To a large extent, these differences originate in the modelling of the gas-surface interactions (GSI), which is part of the satellite aerodynamic modelling used in the acceleration to density data processing. Physics-based GSI models require in-situ atmospheric composition and temperature data that are not measured by any of the above-mentioned satellites and, as a consequence, rely on thermosphere models for these inputs. To reduce the dependence on existing thermosphere models, we choose a GSI model with a constant energy accommodation coefficient per mission, which we optimize exploiting particular attitude manoeuvres and wind analyses to increase the self-consistency of the multi-mission thermosphere mass density data sets. We compare our results with those based on variable energy accommodation obtained by different studies and semi-empirical models to show the principal differences. The presented comparisons provide novel opportunity to quantify the discrepancies between current GSI models. Among the presented data, density variations with variable accommodation are within ±10%, and peaks can reach up to 15% at the poles. The largest differences occur during low solar activity periods. In addition, we utilize a series of attitude manoeuvres performed in May 2014 by the Swarm A and C satellites, which are flying in close proximity, to evaluate the residual inconsistency of the density observations as a function of the energy accommodation coefficient. Our analysis demonstrates that an energy accommodation coefficient of 0.85 maximizes the consistency of the Swarm density observations during the attitude manoeuvres. Using such coefficient, for Swarm A and Swarm C, the new density would be lower in magnitude with a 4-5% difference. In recent studies, similar energy accommodation coefficients were retrieved for the CHAMP and GOCE missions by investigating thermospheric winds. These new values for the energy accommodation coefficient provide a higher consistency among different missions and models. A comparison of neutral densities between current thermosphere models and observations indicates that semi-empirical models such as NRLMSISE-00 and DTM-2013 significantly overestimate the density, and that an overall higher consistency between the observations from the different missions can be achieved with the presented assumptions. The new densities from this work provide consistencies of 4.13% and 3.65% between the minimum and maximum mean ratios among the selected missions with NRLMSISE-00 and DTM-2013, respectively. A comparison with the WACCM-X general circulation model is also performed. Similar to the other models, WACCM-X seems to provide higher estimates of mass density especially under high and moderate solar activities. This work has the objective to guide density data users over the multiple data sets and highlight the remaining uncertainties associated with different GSI models.

Original languageEnglish
Article number54
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of Space Weather and Space Climate
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Accelerometer
  • Atmospheric drag
  • Gas-surface interactions
  • Mass density
  • Satellite aerodynamics
  • Thermosphere


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