Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Biggest breach of Earth's solar storm shield discovered

Earth's magnetic field, which shields our planet from particles streaming outward from the Sun, often develops two holes that allow the largest leaks, according to researchers sponsored by NASA and the National Science Foundation.

"The discovery overturns a long-standing belief about how and when most of the solar particles penetrate Earth's magnetic field, and could be used to predict when solar storms will be severe.

Based on these results, we expect more severe storms during the upcoming solar cycle," said Vassilis Angelopoulos of the University of California, Los Angeles, Principal Investigator for NASA's THEMIS mission (Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms). THEMIS was used to discover the size of the leak.

Earth's magnetic field acts as a shield against the bombardment of particles continuously streaming from the sun. Because the solar particles (ions and electrons) are electrically charged, they feel magnetic forces and most are deflected by our planet's magnetic field. However, our magnetic field is a leaky shield and the number of particles breaching this shield depends on the orientation of the sun's magnetic field. It had been thought that when the sun's magnetic field is aligned with that of the Earth, the door is shut and that few if any solar particles enter Earth's magnetic shield. The door was thought to open up when the solar magnetic field direction points opposite to Earth's field, leading to more solar particles inside the shield.

Surprisingly, recent observations by the THEMIS spacecraft fleet demonstrate that the opposite is true. "Twenty times more solar particles cross the Earth's leaky magnetic shield when the sun's magnetic field is aligned with that of the Earth compared to when the two magnetic fields are oppositely directed," said Marit Oieroset of the University of California, Berkeley, lead author of one of two papers on this research, published May 2008 in Geophysical Research Letters.

Researchers have long suspected that this "closed door" entry mechanism might exist, but didn't know how important it was. "It's as if people knew there was a crack in a levy, but they did not know how much flooding it caused," said Oieroset.

Previous spacecraft could only sample a small part of this enormous layer of solar particles inside the Earth's magnetic shield, but the five spacecraft in the THEMIS fleet spanned the entire rapidly-growing layer to give definitive measurements.

While the THEMIS researchers discovered the size of the leak, they didn't know its location(s). This was discovered by Wenhui Li of the University of New Hampshire, Durham, N.H., and his team. They used a computer simulation to discover where two holes frequently develop in Earth's magnetic field, one at high latitude over the Northern hemisphere, and one at high latitude over the Southern hemisphere. The holes form over the daylit side of Earth, on the side of the magnetic shield facing the sun.

The simulation also showed how the leaks develop. As solar particles flow out from the sun, they carry solar magnetic fields past our planet. Li's team realized that the solar magnetic field drapes against Earth's field as it passes by. Even though the two fields point in the same direction at equatorial latitudes, they point in opposite directions at high latitudes, When compression forces the opposite fields together, they link up with each other in a process called magnetic reconnection. This process tears the two holes in Earth's magnetic field and appends the section of the solar field between the two holes to Earth's field, carrying the solar particles on this section into the magnetosphere, according to Li's team. "We've found if the door is closed, the sun tears down a wall. The crack is huge – about four times wider than Earth and more then seven Earth diameters long," said Li, whose paper will be published in an upcoming article of the Journal of Geophysical Research.

Solar particles by themselves don't cause severe space weather, but they get energized when the solar magnetic field becomes oppositely-directed to Earth's and reconnects in a different way. The energized particles then cause magnetic storms that can overload power lines with excess current, causing widespread blackouts. The particles also can cause radiation storms that present hazards to spacecraft in high orbits and astronauts passing through the storms on the way to the moon or other destinations in the solar system. "The more particles, the more severe the storm," said Joachim "Jimmy" Raeder of the University of New Hampshire, a co-author of Li's paper. "If the solar field has been aligned with the Earth's for a while, we now know Earth's field is heavily loaded with solar particles and primed for a strong storm. This discovery gives us a basic predictive capability for the severity of solar storms, similar to a hurricane forecaster's realization that warmer oceans set the stage for more intense hurricanes. In fact, we expect stronger storms in the upcoming solar cycle. The sun's magnetic field changes direction every cycle, and due to its new orientation in the upcoming cycle, we expect the clouds of particles ejected from the sun will have a field which is at first aligned with Earth, then becomes opposite as the cloud passes by."

Cynthia M. O'Carroll | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Wandering greenhouse gas
16.03.2018 | Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung

nachricht Unique Insights into the Antarctic Ice Shelf System
14.03.2018 | Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Locomotion control with photopigments

Researchers from Göttingen University discover additional function of opsins

Animal photoreceptors capture light with photopigments. Researchers from the University of Göttingen have now discovered that these photopigments fulfill an...

Im Focus: Surveying the Arctic: Tracking down carbon particles

Researchers embark on aerial campaign over Northeast Greenland

On 15 March, the AWI research aeroplane Polar 5 will depart for Greenland. Concentrating on the furthest northeast region of the island, an international team...

Im Focus: Unique Insights into the Antarctic Ice Shelf System

Data collected on ocean-ice interactions in the little-researched regions of the far south

The world’s second-largest ice shelf was the destination for a Polarstern expedition that ended in Punta Arenas, Chile on 14th March 2018. Oceanographers from...

Im Focus: ILA 2018: Laser alternative to hexavalent chromium coating

At the 2018 ILA Berlin Air Show from April 25–29, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT is showcasing extreme high-speed Laser Material Deposition (EHLA): A video documents how for metal components that are highly loaded, EHLA has already proved itself as an alternative to hard chrome plating, which is now allowed only under special conditions.

When the EU restricted the use of hexavalent chromium compounds to special applications requiring authorization, the move prompted a rethink in the surface...

Im Focus: Radar for navigation support from autonomous flying drones

At the ILA Berlin, hall 4, booth 202, Fraunhofer FHR will present two radar sensors for navigation support of drones. The sensors are valuable components in the implementation of autonomous flying drones: they function as obstacle detectors to prevent collisions. Radar sensors also operate reliably in restricted visibility, e.g. in foggy or dusty conditions. Due to their ability to measure distances with high precision, the radar sensors can also be used as altimeters when other sources of information such as barometers or GPS are not available or cannot operate optimally.

Drones play an increasingly important role in the area of logistics and services. Well-known logistic companies place great hope in these compact, aerial...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Ultrafast Wireless and Chip Design at the DATE Conference in Dresden

16.03.2018 | Event News

International Tinnitus Conference of the Tinnitus Research Initiative in Regensburg

13.03.2018 | Event News

International Virtual Reality Conference “IEEE VR 2018” comes to Reutlingen, Germany

08.03.2018 | Event News

Latest News

Wandering greenhouse gas

16.03.2018 | Earth Sciences

'Frequency combs' ID chemicals within the mid-infrared spectral region

16.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

Biologists unravel another mystery of what makes DNA go 'loopy'

16.03.2018 | Life Sciences

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>