The thermosphere layer of earth's atmosphere begins 80 to 90 kilometers above the surface and extends several hundred kilometers into the sky; it is the home to numerous satellites and the International Space Station. It is known that the thermosphere occasionally cools and contracts, but a recent study of satellite orbital decay (due to light atmospheric drag) found that the contraction during 2008 and 2009 was significantly more severe than expected
, leaving researchers at a loss for how to explain it. From Space.com:
"This type of collapse is not rare, but its magnitude shocked scientists. 'This is the biggest contraction of the thermosphere in at least 43 years,' said John Emmert of the Naval Research Lab, lead author of a paper announcing the finding in the June 19 issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters. 'It's a Space Age record.' The collapse occurred during a period of relative solar inactivity — called a solar minimum from 2008 to 2009. These minimums are known to cool and contract the thermosphere, however, the recent collapse was two to three times greater than low solar activity could explain."