Measurements of this newfound polarization in the Northern Lights may provide scientists with fresh insights into the composition of Earth's upper atmosphere, the configuration of its magnetic field, and the energies of particles from the Sun, the researchers say.
If observed on other planets, the phenomenon might also give clues to the shape of the Sun's magnetic field as it curls around other bodies in the solar system.
When a beam of light is polarized, its electromagnetic waves share a common orientation, say, aligned vertically, or at some other angle. Until now, scientists thought that light from energized atoms and molecules in planetary upper atmospheres could not be polarized. The reason is simple: In spite of the low number of particles at the altitudes concerned (above 100 kilometers (60 miles)), there are still numerous collisions between molecules and gas atoms. Those collisions depolarize the emitted light.
Fifty years ago, an Australian researcher, Robert Duncan, claimed to observe what looked like polarization of auroral light, but other scientists found that single observation unconvincing.
To revisit the question, Jean Lilensten of the Laboratory of Planetology of Grenoble, France, and his colleagues studied auroral light with a custom-made telescope during the winters of 2006-2007 and 2007-2008. They made their observations from Svalbard Island, Norway, which is in the polar region, at a latitude of 79 degrees north.
At the north and south magnetic poles, many charged particles in the solar wind--a flow of electrically charged matter from the Sun--are captured by the planet's field and forced to plunge into the atmosphere. The particles strike atmospheric gases, causing light emissions.
Lilensten and his colleagues observed weak polarization of a red glow that radiates at an altitude of 220 kilometers (140 miles). The glow results from electrons hitting oxygen atoms. The scientists had suspected that such light might be polarized because Earth's magnetic field at high latitudes funnels the electrons, aligning the angles at which they penetrate the atmosphere.
The finding of auroral polarization "opens a new field in planetology," says Lilensten, who is the lead author of the study. He and his colleagues reported their results on 19 April in Geophysical Research Letters, a publication of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).
Fluctuations in the polarization measurements can reveal the energy of the particles coming from the Sun when they enter Earth's atmosphere, Lilensten notes. The intensity of the polarization gives clues to the composition of the upper atmosphere, particularly with regard to atomic oxygen.
Because polarization is strongest when the telescope points perpendicularly to the magnetic field lines, the measurements also provide a way to determine magnetic field configurations, Lilensten adds. That could prove especially useful as astronomers train their telescopes on other planetary atmospheres. If polarized emissions are observed there as well, the measurements may enable scientists to understand how the Sun's magnetic field is distorted by obstacles such as the planets Venus and Mars, which lack intrinsic magnetic fields.Title:
Joran Moen: Department of Physics, University of Oslo, Blindern, Oslo, Norway, and ESTEC, Noordwijk, Netherlands;
Dag A. Lorentzen, Fred Sigernes: Arctic Geophysics, University Centre in Svalbard, Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway;
Pierre Olivier Amblard: CNRS-INPG, GIPSA Lab, BP 46, Saint Martin d'Heres, France.Citation:
Dutuit, P. O. Amblard, and F. Sigernes (2008), Polarization in aurorae: A new dimension for space environments studies, Geophys. Res. Lett., 35, L08804, doi:10.1029/2007GL033006.Contact information for coauthors:
NASA finds newly formed tropical storm lan over open waters
17.10.2017 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
The melting ice makes the sea around Greenland less saline
16.10.2017 | Aarhus University
University of Maryland researchers contribute to historic detection of gravitational waves and light created by event
On August 17, 2017, at 12:41:04 UTC, scientists made the first direct observation of a merger between two neutron stars--the dense, collapsed cores that remain...
Seven new papers describe the first-ever detection of light from a gravitational wave source. The event, caused by two neutron stars colliding and merging together, was dubbed GW170817 because it sent ripples through space-time that reached Earth on 2017 August 17. Around the world, hundreds of excited astronomers mobilized quickly and were able to observe the event using numerous telescopes, providing a wealth of new data.
Previous detections of gravitational waves have all involved the merger of two black holes, a feat that won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics earlier this month....
Material defects in end products can quickly result in failures in many areas of industry, and have a massive impact on the safe use of their products. This is why, in the field of quality assurance, intelligent, nondestructive sensor systems play a key role. They allow testing components and parts in a rapid and cost-efficient manner without destroying the actual product or changing its surface. Experts from the Fraunhofer IZFP in Saarbrücken will be presenting two exhibits at the Blechexpo in Stuttgart from 7–10 November 2017 that allow fast, reliable, and automated characterization of materials and detection of defects (Hall 5, Booth 5306).
When quality testing uses time-consuming destructive test methods, it can result in enormous costs due to damaging or destroying the products. And given that...
Using a new cooling technique MPQ scientists succeed at observing collisions in a dense beam of cold and slow dipolar molecules.
How do chemical reactions proceed at extremely low temperatures? The answer requires the investigation of molecular samples that are cold, dense, and slow at...
Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, using high precision laser spectroscopy of atomic hydrogen, confirm the surprisingly small value of the proton radius determined from muonic hydrogen.
It was one of the breakthroughs of the year 2010: Laser spectroscopy of muonic hydrogen resulted in a value for the proton charge radius that was significantly...
17.10.2017 | Event News
10.10.2017 | Event News
10.10.2017 | Event News
18.10.2017 | Materials Sciences
18.10.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
18.10.2017 | Physics and Astronomy