ESA’s Cluster satellites have flown through regions of the Earth’s magnetic field that accelerate electrons to approximately one hundredth the speed of light. The observations present Cluster scientists with their first detection of these events and give them a look at the details of a universal process known as magnetic reconnection.
On 25 January 2005, the four Cluster spacecraft found themselves in the right place at the right time: a region of space known as an electron diffusion region. It is a boundary just a few kilometres thick that occurs at an altitude of approximately 60 000 kilometres above the Earth’s surface. It marks the frontier between the Earth’s magnetic field and that of the Sun. The Sun’s magnetic field is carried to the Earth by a wind of electrically charged particles, known as the solar wind.
An electron diffusion region is like an electrical switch. When it is flipped, it uses energy stored in the Sun’s and Earth’s magnetic fields to heat the electrically charged particles in its vicinity to large speeds. In this way, it initiates a process that can result in the creation of the aurora on Earth, where fast-moving charged particles collide with atmospheric atoms and make them glow.
Philippe Escoubet | EurekAlert!
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