AER 101: Suborbital Space Environment

AER 101: Suborbital Space Environment

AER 101 provides an understanding of the general properties and characteristics of the geospace environment and the underlying physical mechanisms. The student will understand the fundamentals of aeronomy, study of the atomospheric environment of the mesosphere and lower thermosphere (MLT) region of the atmosphere. Special emphasis is given to the to environmental hazards most relevant to the operations of manned spacecraft, including particles and radiation, impact phenomena, spacecraft charging, aerodynamic drag, and oxygen corrosion of surfaces.



    The course provides an overview of the atmospheric and space environment experienced by suborbital spacecraft. It builds an understanding of the Earth’s atmosphere from the troposphere over the stratosphere and mesosphere to the thermosphere and the near-Earth space environment. The course will introduce the relevant aspects of each environment with a focus on dynamics, chemistry, radiation environment and energetic particle environment. It will outline commonalities as well as differences between these environments and discuss effects on spacecraft where applicable. The course will also introduce measurement techniques for key quantities in the various environments. The course will close with an outlook on space weather and an overview of the atmospheric environment of Mars. While the course is part of the aeronomy concentration in IIAS, concepts introduced in the course will also be applicable to space flight operations and flight test engineering concentrations.


    Course Objectives:

    The course will provide the student with fundamental knowledge about the Earth’s atmosphere from the troposphere to the near-Earth space environment. The student with be able to apply basic concepts that describe these environments. The course will introduce the student to simple models of Earth’s atmosphere and allow him or her to apply them to questions concerning the atmospheric environment. It will introduce the student to relevant measurement techniques of atmospheric environments and outline how suborbital measurements contribute to the characterization of these environments. Students will be able to apply this knowledge of environmental effects on spacecraft and measurement design.


    The course is largely based on material found in the following textbooks:

    • Frederick, J. F., Principles of Atmospheric Science, Jones and Bartlett, 2008.
    • Moldwin, M., An Introduction to Space Weather, Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    Other literature relevant to the course includes:

    • Sagan C., The Demon-haunted World – Science as a Candle in the Dark, Random house, 1996.
    • Catling, D. C. and Kasting, J. F., Atmospheric Evolution on Inhabited and Lifeless Worlds, Cambridge, 2017.
    • Tascione, T. F., Introduction to the space environment (2nd), Krieger, 2010.
    • Fortescue, P., Swinerd, G., Stark, J., Spacecraft Systems Engineering (4th), Wiley, 2011.
    • Haberle, R. M., et al., The Atmosphere and Climate of Mars, Cambridge, 2017.


    Prerequisites:  None


    Lectures and Assignments

    This is a 3-credit course that consists of ten webinars in two-hour blocks (1.5 hours of lectures plus time for discussion of assignments) and six assignments. Two assignments will consist of self-study tasks to be summarized in write-ups/presentations, four assignments will based on questions and calculations. Students will receive either a Pass or Fail grade.


    The course will be run via GoToMeeting. The first webinar will be held on Friday, February 5, 2021 at 4:00-6:00 pm PST/PDT (7:00-9:00 pm EST/EDT). Follow-on webinars will tentatively also be held on Fridays at this time although there is some flexibility in case another day/time is preferred by the participants.


    Webinar 1

    Introduction to the Scientific Method

    Introduction to the Earth’s Atmosphere

    Atmospheric structure

    Concept of scale height

    Hydrostatic equation and barometric formula


    Webinar 2

    Radiative Properties of the Atmosphere – Climate

    Black body radiation

                Interactions of light with matter

    Atmospheric transmission

    Atmospheric energy balance and greenhouse effect


    Webinar 3

    Troposphere (1)

    Atmospheric lapse rate

    Atmospheric stability and clouds

    Forces driving wind

    Impact of weather on spacecraft operations


    Webinar 4

    Troposphere (2)

    Tropospheric circulation

    Synoptic weather systems and fronts

    Numerical weather prediction

    Hazardous weather


    Webinar 5


    Stratospheric dynamics

    Concept of potential temperature and gravity waves

    Concept of potential vorticity and planetary waves

    Stratospheric ozone chemistry and polar stratospheric clouds

    Impact of air traffic on the stratosphere


    Webinar 6


    Mesospheric composition and chemistry

    Mesospheric temperatures and energy balance

    Mesospheric dynamics, gravity waves and tides

    Polar mesospheric clouds and polar mesospheric summer echoes


    Webinar 7

    Upper Atmosphere: Thermosphere

    Thermospheric energy input

    Thermospheric composition and chemistry

    Thermospheric structure

    Environmental effects on spacecraft


    Webinar 8

    Upper Atmosphere: Ionosphere

    Ionospheric layers

    Impact on radio transmissions

    Optical effects in the upper atmosphere


    Webinar 9

    Upper Atmosphere: Exosphere and Near-Earth Space Environment

    Movement of charged particles

    Earth’s magnetic field

    Magnetosphere and Van Allen radiation belts

    Solar energetic particles and cosmic rays – space weather

    Exobase and atmospheric escape

    Environmental effects on spacecraft


    Webinar 10

    Comparative Planetology: Introduction to Mars’ Atmosphere

    Mars’ atmospheric structure and composition

    Seasonal and diurnal temperature cycles

    Dust and condensates and their radiative effects

    Entry, descent and landing of spacecraft on Mars


    2021 Course Schedule


    17apr(apr 17)6:30 pm21(apr 21)5:00 pmPoSSUM Scientist-Astronaut Class 2001 and 2002

    19apr(apr 19)8:00 am23(apr 23)5:00 pm2020 PoSSUM Academy - Red Sprite Group

    24apr(apr 24)6:30 pm28(apr 28)5:00 pmPoSSUM Scientist-Astronaut Class 2003 and 2101

    26apr(apr 26)8:00 am30(apr 30)5:00 pm2020 PoSSUM Academy - Blue Jet Group


    01may8:00 am05(may 5)5:00 pmOPS 102 Spacecraft Egress and Rescue Operations On-SiteOn-site compliment to OPS 102 course providing aircraft egress and sea survial training to complement post-landing human space flight system engineering instruction

    06may(may 6)8:00 am09(may 9)5:00 pmFeaturedBIO 104: Advanced Egress - Spacesuit Landing and Post-Landing Testing

    10may(may 10)8:00 am12(may 12)5:00 pmOPS 104 On-Site Mission Simulation TrainingOn-Site compliment to OPS 104 Orbital Mechanics and Mission Simulation using the IIAS Orion simulator to provide high-fidelity simulation of ISS rendezvous and docking missions.

    13may(may 13)8:00 am16(may 16)5:00 pmEVA 105 Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory EVA Operations CampaignOn-Site compliment to EVA 105 Fundamentals of Underwater EVA Operations using the IIAS Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. This NAUI-certified prepares on to evaluate actual EVA space suits in analog underwater conditions.

    17may(may 17)8:00 am21(may 21)5:00 pmFeaturedBIO 103 Microgravity Research CampaignMicrogravity Research Campaign supporting the IIAS BIO 103 Program

    25may(may 25)8:00 am28(may 28)5:00 pmEVA 102 Operational Space Medicine Field CampaignField component to cover wilderness medicine in extreme environments, culminating with a 4-day on-site lab portion devoted to triage, scenarios and skills pertaining to wilderness medicine

    29may01junEVA 103 Planetary Field Geology Field CampaignEVA 103 course covers the requirements and design considerations for EVA systems and tools for conducting planetary field geology


    06jun(jun 6)8:00 am12(jun 12)5:00 pmFTE 102 Fixed-Wing Performance Flight Test CampaignOn-Site compliment to FTE 102 Fixed-Wing Performance Flight Testing using Turbo Mooney aircraft.

    13jun(jun 13)8:00 am19(jun 19)5:00 pmFTE 103 Fixed-Wing Stability and Control Flight Test CampaignOn-Site compliment to the FTE 102 Fixed-Wing Stability and Control Flight Test Course using Turbo Mooney, Piper Twin, and Pitts S2B aircraft.


    10julAll Day20FeaturedAER 103 Noctilucent Cloud Imagery Field Research CampaignField campaign as part of AER 103, Airborne Noctilucent Cloud Imagery course to study noctilucent cloud formations through coordinated ground, airborne, and balloon observations.


    01nov8:00 am05(nov 5)5:00 pmFeaturedEVA 104 Gravity-Offset EVA Space Suit Evaluation CampaignGravity-offset research campaign to evaluate the Final Frontier Design EVA space suit by applying the tools and techniques developed through EVA 102 and EVA 103 courses

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