Satellite drag coefficient modeling for thermosphere science and mission operations

Piyush M. Mehta*, Smriti N. Paul, Nicholas H. Crisp, Philip L. Sheridan, Christian Siemes, Günther March, Sean Bruinsma

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)
65 Downloads (Pure)


Satellite drag modeling remains the largest source of uncertainty affecting space operations in low Earth orbit. The uncertainty stems from inaccurate models for mass density and drag coefficient. Drag coefficient modeling also impacts scientific knowledge on the physics and dynamics of the upper atmosphere through the estimation of high-fidelity mass density from measurements of acceleration on-board satellites. Efforts over the last decade have pushed drag coefficient modeling in the right direction, however, have resulted in multiple methods and tools. We provide a comprehensive review of the drag coefficient modeling methods and tools. Current scale differences between thermospheric data sets mostly originate from errors in the aerodynamic modeling, specifically in the modeling of the satellite outer surface geometry and the gas-surface interactions. Enhancing these models’ accuracy is intrinsically connected to the satellite drag fidelity for science and operations. A team of invested scientists recently met under the community-driven International Space Weather Action Teams (ISWAT) initiative to discuss and consolidate the efforts towards a drag coefficient modeling baseline for consistency in science and operations. In this paper, we compare the available methods for drag coefficient modeling, their impact on the derived density estimates, and make recommendations for adoption of baseline methods for science and operations. Results show that the differences in derived densities estimates can reach tens of percent at altitudes above 4̃50 km during solar minimum conditions resulting mainly from differences in the modeling of gas-surface interactions. As a result, we conclude and recommend that robust uncertainty quantification be an integral part of any modeling efforts that employ the high-fidelity accelerometer derived density estimates. We also conclude and recommend that gas-surface interaction models that account for impact of altitude and solar variations be employed moving forward. Finally, we recommend future science missions to improve our understanding of gas-surface interactions and eventually the upper thermosphere variability.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5443-5459
Number of pages17
JournalAdvances in Space Research
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • Aerodynamic modeling
  • Atmospheric drag
  • Gas-surface interactions
  • Neutral density
  • Satellite aerodynamics
  • Thermosphere


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