On the fast zonal transport of the STS-121 space shuttle exhaust plume in the lower thermosphere


Meier et al. (2011) reported rapid eastward transport of the STS-121 space shuttle (launch: July 4, 2006) main engine plume in the lower thermosphere, observed in hydrogen Lyman α images by the GUVI instrument onboard the TIMED satellite. In order to study the mechanism of the rapid zonal transport, diagnostic tracer calculations are performed using winds from the Thermosphere Ionosphere Mesosphere Electrodynamics General Circulation Model (TIME-GCM) simulation of July, 2006. It is found that the strong eastward jet at heights of 100\textendash110\ km, where the exhaust plume was deposited, results in a persistent eastward tracer motion with an average velocity of 45\ m/s. This is generally consistent with, though faster than, the prevailing eastward shuttle plume movement with daily mean velocity of 30\ m/s deduced from the STS-121 GUVI observation. The quasi-two-day wave (QTDW) was not included in the numerical simulation because it was found not to be large. Its absence, however, might be partially responsible for insufficient meridional transport to move the tracers away from the fast jet in the simulation. The current study and our model results from Yue and Liu (2010) explain two very different shuttle plume transport scenarios (STS-121 and STS-107 (launch: January 16, 2003), respectively): we conclude that lower thermospheric dynamics is sufficient to account for both very fast zonal motion (zonal jet in the case of STS-121) and very fast meridional motion to polar regions (large QTDW in the case of STS-107).

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Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics
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