Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

NASA measuring the pulsating aurora

08.10.2015

Thanks to a lucky conjunction of two satellites, a ground-based array of all-sky cameras, and some spectacular aurora borealis, researchers have uncovered evidence for an unexpected role that electrons have in creating the dancing auroras. Though humans have been seeing auroras for thousands of years, we have only recently begun to understand what causes them.

In this study, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, scientists compared ground-based videos of pulsating auroras--a certain type of aurora that appears as patches of brightness regularly flickering on and off--with satellite measurements of the numbers and energies of electrons raining down towards the surface from inside Earth's magnetic bubble, the magnetosphere.


This all-sky movie shows a time lapse of a pulsating aurora on Jan. 3, 2012. Scientists compared the video, taken in Poker Flat, Alaska, over the course of three minutes, with satellite measurements of the numbers and energies of electrons raining down from the magnetosphere to better understand how electrons transfer energy to the upper atmosphere and create the auroras. The black mark traces the satellite foot point -- the place where the satellite is magnetically connected to the aurora -- of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program satellite.

Credits: NASA

The team found something unexpected: A drop in the number of low-energy electrons, long thought to have little or no effect, corresponds with especially fast changes in the shape and structure of pulsating auroras.

"Without the combination of ground and satellite measurements, we would not have been able to confirm that these events are connected," said Marilia Samara, a space physicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and lead author on the study.

Pulsating auroras are so-called because their features shift and brighten in distinct patches, rather than elongated arcs across the sky like active auroras. However, their appearance isn't the only difference. Though all auroras are caused by energetic particles--typically electrons--speeding down into Earth's atmosphere and colliding brilliantly with the atoms and molecules in the air, the source of these electrons is different for pulsating auroras and active auroras.

Active auroras happen when a dense wave of solar material--such as a high-speed stream of solar wind or a large cloud that exploded off the sun called a coronal mass ejection--hits Earth's magnetic field, causing it to rattle.

This rattling releases electrons that have been trapped in the tail of that magnetic field, which stretches out away from the sun. Once released, these electrons go racing down towards the poles, then they interact with particles in Earth's upper atmosphere to create glowing lights that stretch across the sky in long ropes.

On the other hand, the electrons that set off pulsating auroras are sent spinning to the surface by complicated wave motions in the magnetosphere. These wave motions can happen at any time, not just when a wave of solar material rattles the magnetic field.

"The hemispheres are magnetically connected, meaning that any time there is pulsating aurora near the north pole, there is also pulsating aurora near the south pole," said Robert Michell, a space physicist at NASA Goddard and one of the study's authors. "Electrons are constantly pinging back and forth along this magnetic field line during an aurora event."

The electrons that travel between the hemispheres are not the original higher-energy electrons rocketing in from the magnetosphere. Instead, these are what's called low-energy secondary electrons, meaning that they are slower particles that have been kicked up out in all directions only after a collision from the first set of higher-energy electrons. When this happens, some of the secondary electrons shoot back upwards along the magnetic field line, zipping towards the opposite hemisphere.

When studying their pulsating aurora videos, researchers found that the most distinct change in the structure and shape of the aurora happened during times when far fewer of these secondary electrons were shooting in along hemispheric magnetic field lines.

"It turns out that secondary electrons could very well be a big piece of the puzzle to how, why, and when the energy that creates auroras is transferred to the upper atmosphere," said Samara.

However, most current simulations of how the aurora form don't take secondary electrons into account. This is because the energy of the individual particles is so much lower than the electrons coming directly from the magnetosphere, leading many to assume that their contribution to the glowing northern lights is negligible. However, their cumulative effect is likely much larger.

"We need targeted observations to figure out exactly how to incorporate these low-energy secondary electrons into our models," said Samara. "But it seems clear that they may very well end up playing a more important role than previously thought."

Measurements of the number and energies of electrons were made by two satellites that happened to be passing overhead during these pulsating aurora events: Reimei, a JAXA satellite tasked with studying auroras, and a satellite from the U.S. Department of Defense's Defense Meteorological Satellite Program. The ground-based all-sky cameras--used to study both auroras and meteors--are operated at Poker Flat Research Range in Fairbanks, Alaska and the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association Radar Facility in Tromsø, Norway.

Susan Hendrix | EurekAlert!

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht UNH scientists help provide first-ever views of elusive energy explosion
16.11.2018 | University of New Hampshire

nachricht NASA keeps watch over space explosions
16.11.2018 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: UNH scientists help provide first-ever views of elusive energy explosion

Researchers at the University of New Hampshire have captured a difficult-to-view singular event involving "magnetic reconnection"--the process by which sparse particles and energy around Earth collide producing a quick but mighty explosion--in the Earth's magnetotail, the magnetic environment that trails behind the planet.

Magnetic reconnection has remained a bit of a mystery to scientists. They know it exists and have documented the effects that the energy explosions can...

Im Focus: A Chip with Blood Vessels

Biochips have been developed at TU Wien (Vienna), on which tissue can be produced and examined. This allows supplying the tissue with different substances in a very controlled way.

Cultivating human cells in the Petri dish is not a big challenge today. Producing artificial tissue, however, permeated by fine blood vessels, is a much more...

Im Focus: A Leap Into Quantum Technology

Faster and secure data communication: This is the goal of a new joint project involving physicists from the University of Würzburg. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research funds the project with 14.8 million euro.

In our digital world data security and secure communication are becoming more and more important. Quantum communication is a promising approach to achieve...

Im Focus: Research icebreaker Polarstern begins the Antarctic season

What does it look like below the ice shelf of the calved massive iceberg A68?

On Saturday, 10 November 2018, the research icebreaker Polarstern will leave its homeport of Bremerhaven, bound for Cape Town, South Africa.

Im Focus: Penn engineers develop ultrathin, ultralight 'nanocardboard'

When choosing materials to make something, trade-offs need to be made between a host of properties, such as thickness, stiffness and weight. Depending on the application in question, finding just the right balance is the difference between success and failure

Now, a team of Penn Engineers has demonstrated a new material they call "nanocardboard," an ultrathin equivalent of corrugated paper cardboard. A square...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

“3rd Conference on Laser Polishing – LaP 2018” Attracts International Experts and Users

09.11.2018 | Event News

On the brain’s ability to find the right direction

06.11.2018 | Event News

European Space Talks: Weltraumschrott – eine Gefahr für die Gesellschaft?

23.10.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

Purdue cancer identity technology makes it easier to find a tumor's 'address'

16.11.2018 | Health and Medicine

Good preparation is half the digestion

16.11.2018 | Life Sciences

Microscope measures muscle weakness

16.11.2018 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>