Science & Technology

High Places: USU UASAL Summer Fellow Studies the Earth's Upper Atmosphere

Physics and math major, Honors student and Aggie First Scholar Agustina Peck, who conducts research with postdoctoral mentor Ivana Molina, is set to present findings at the Student Research Symposium during USU Research Week, April 8-11.

By Mary-Ann Muffoletto |

USU physics and math scholar Aggie Peck, left, a 2023 UASAL Summer Fellow, and her postdoctoral mentor Ivana Molina, right, display a research poster Peck presents during USU Research Week 2024's Student Research Symposium April 9-10. (Photo Credit: USU/M. Muffoletto)

Utah State University Honors student Agustina “Aggie” Peck is becoming a seasoned research presenter.

The physics and computational mathematics major opened the academic year by presenting her atmospheric science research at the American Physical Society Four Corners Section meeting hosted by USU in Logan last October. In January, Peck headed to Bozeman, Montana, to participate in the regional conference of APS’ Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics.

Selected for USU’s inaugural cohort of Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters Summer Fellow Program in 2023, Peck recently returned from a gathering in Salt Lake City, where she presented her research with other UASAL Fellows. At this writing, the first-generation college student is sharing her research at the APS Spring Meeting, “Quarks to Cosmos,” in Sacramento, California.

Peck returns to Logan just in time to participate in the Student Research Symposium during USU Research Week 2024. The Aggie First Scholar presents her research poster, “Altitude Normalization of Thermospheric Neutral Densities from Satellite Observations Near Dawn and Dusk,” Tuesday, April 9, during the 1:30-2:20 p.m. session in the Main Atrium of the Merrill-Cazier Library.

“It’s been a whirlwind schedule, but I’m excited about the research and excited about sharing it,” Peck says.

Opportunities to present her research, she says, not only allows her to communicate about her specialized area of science, but to connect with underrepresented groups in her academic discipline.

“I’m a woman, a Latina and the first person in my family to go to college,” says Peck, who hails from Buenos Aires, Argentina. “This enables me to be an effective ambassador to others, who might feel intimidated about pursuing higher education. It feels much more attainable when you see and talk with someone who shares your experiences.”

Peck’s research, which she conducts with mentor Ivana Molina, a USU postdoctoral fellow and instructor in the Department of Physics, and USU Physics professor Ludger Scherliess, focuses on the Earth’s thermosphere.

“This is the second-highest layer of Earth’s atmosphere, which is located between the mesosphere and the exosphere,” she says. “It extends approximately 90 to 500 kilometers above the Earth’s surface.”

The thermosphere is important, Peck says, because many satellites travel through this atmospheric layer.

“The thermosphere absorbs energy from the sun, which causes it to heat up and expand,” she says. “This changes the thermosphere’s neutral densities, which can cause satellite drag. Understanding these densities and their effects is crucial for successfully planning and executing Low Earth Orbit satellite missions.”

To study these densities, Peck turned to data collected from the European Space Agency’s Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) satellite.

“The original mission of this satellite, which orbited the Earth in the thermosphere from 2009 until 2013, was to map the Earth’s gravity field, known as the geoid,” she says. “Dawn and dusk neutral densities and winds were obtained later, using data from multiple instruments on the satellite.”

Because those densities vary widely, Peck used a mathematical model to normalize the GOCE dataset to a reference altitude.

“Our study lays the foundation for future study of the longitudinal variability of neutral densities observed by GOCE,” she says. “This is important for further understanding the thermosphere, and the impact of varying densities on satellites.”


Mary-Ann Muffoletto
Public Relations Specialist
College of Science


Ivana Molina
Postdoctoral Fellow
Department of Physics
(435) 797-2857


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