NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) spacecraft, designed to image the invisible interactions occurring at the edge of the solar system, captured images of magnetospheric structures and a dynamic event occurring in the magnetosphere as the spacecraft observed from near lunar distance.
The data provides the first image of the plasma sheet, a component of the magnetosphere made up of magnetic field lines that attach to the Earth at both ends, bottling up denser plasma (ionized gas), within the magnetotail, the trailing portion of the magnetosphere stretching backwards away from the Sun by the force of the solar wind. The image shows the plasma sheet and magnetotail in profile.
"The image alone is remarkable and would have made a great paper in and of itself because it's the first time we've imaged these important regions of the magnetosphere," says Dr. David McComas, principal investigator of the IBEX mission and assistant vice president of the Space Science and Engineering Division at Southwest Research Institute.
However, a closer look at the various images produced by multiple IBEX orbits revealed what appeared to be a piece of the plasma sheet being bitten off and ejected down the tail. This magnetic disconnection phenomenon — a dynamic event where the magnetic fields "reconnect" across the plasma sheet, producing what is known as a plasmoid, is one explanation for what could be occurring in the series of images, which has never been directly seen before.
"Imagine the magnetosphere as one of those balloons that people make animals out of. If you take your hands and squeeze the balloon, the pressure forces the air into another segment of the balloon," says McComas. "Similarly, the solar wind at times increases the pressure around the magnetosphere, resulting in a portion of the plasma sheet being pinched away from the rest of the plasma sheet and forced down the magnetotail."
Because researchers believe this phenomenon generally occurs deeper in the magnetotail, the IBEX team is considering other explanations for the event, as well. Other possibilities include acceleration of ions from compression of the plasma sheet or an injection of new plasma caused by a reconnection event further back in the tail, with particles streaming back toward Earth.
"To actually be able to observe and image the plasma sheet and magnetotail for the first time, and especially to be able to see their dynamic variations, is extremely exciting," McComas continues.
While not specifically designed to observe the magnetosphere, IBEX's vantage point in space provides twice yearly (spring and fall) seasons for viewing from outside the magnetosphere. Previous images of the magnetosphere have been taken by other satellites from within. Future IBEX images of the magnetosphere are expected to provide additional data to compare with local measurements inside the magnetosphere and build on current theories.
Since its October 2008 launch, the IBEX science mission has flourished into multiple research studies. In addition to studying the interstellar interaction at the edge of the solar system and doing magnetospheric science, the spacecraft has also directly collected hydrogen and oxygen from the interstellar medium for the first time and made the first observations of very fast hydrogen atoms coming from the Moon, following decades of speculation and searching for their existence.
IBEX is the latest in NASA's series of low-cost, rapidly developed Small Explorers space missions. Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, leads and developed the mission with a team of national and international partners. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the Explorers Program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
The paper "First IBEX observations of the terrestrial plasma sheet and a possible disconnection event," by D.J. McComas, M.A. Dayeh, H.O. Funsten, S.A. Fuselier, J. Goldstein, J.-M. Jahn, P. Janzen, D.G. Mitchell, S.M. Petrinec, D.B. Reisenfeld, and N.A. Schwadron is being presented Dec. 14, 2010, at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco and has been accepted for publication in AGU's Journal of Geophysical Research.
Maria Martinez | EurekAlert!
A promising target in the quest for a 1-million-year-old Antarctic ice core
24.05.2018 | University of Washington
Tropical Peat Swamps: Restoration of Endangered Carbon Reservoirs
24.05.2018 | Leibniz-Zentrum für Marine Tropenforschung (ZMT)
The more electronics steer, accelerate and brake cars, the more important it is to protect them against cyber-attacks. That is why 15 partners from industry and academia will work together over the next three years on new approaches to IT security in self-driving cars. The joint project goes by the name Security For Connected, Autonomous Cars (SecForCARs) and has funding of €7.2 million from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Infineon is leading the project.
Vehicles already offer diverse communication interfaces and more and more automated functions, such as distance and lane-keeping assist systems. At the same...
A research team led by physicists at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) has developed molecular nanoswitches that can be toggled between two structurally different states using an applied voltage. They can serve as the basis for a pioneering class of devices that could replace silicon-based components with organic molecules.
The development of new electronic technologies drives the incessant reduction of functional component sizes. In the context of an international collaborative...
At the LASYS 2018, from June 5th to 7th, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) will be showcasing processes for the laser material processing of tomorrow in hall 4 at stand 4E75. With blown bomb shells the LZH will present first results of a research project on civil security.
At this year's LASYS, the LZH will exhibit light-based processes such as cutting, welding, ablation and structuring as well as additive manufacturing for...
There are videos on the internet that can make one marvel at technology. For example, a smartphone is casually bent around the arm or a thin-film display is rolled in all directions and with almost every diameter. From the user's point of view, this looks fantastic. From a professional point of view, however, the question arises: Is that already possible?
At Display Week 2018, scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP will be demonstrating today’s technological possibilities and...
So-called quantum many-body scars allow quantum systems to stay out of equilibrium much longer, explaining experiment | Study published in Nature Physics
Recently, researchers from Harvard and MIT succeeded in trapping a record 53 atoms and individually controlling their quantum state, realizing what is called a...
25.05.2018 | Event News
02.05.2018 | Event News
13.04.2018 | Event News
25.05.2018 | Event News
25.05.2018 | Machine Engineering
25.05.2018 | Life Sciences