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New Computer Simulations Show Earth’s Spaghetti-Like Magnetosphere

Supercomputer simulation showing the tangled magnetosphere surrounding Earth. Credit: OLCF

A new computer simulation is showing Earth’s magnetosphere in amazing detail – and it looks a lot like a huge pile of tangled spaghetti (with the Earth as a meatball). Or perhaps a cosmic version of modern art.

The magnetosphere is formed by the Sun’s magnetic field interacting with Earth’s own magnetic field. When charged particles from a solar storm, also known as a coronal mass ejection (CME), impact our magnetic field, the results can be spectacular, from powerful electrical currents in the atmosphere to beautiful aurorae at high altitudes. Space physicists are using the new simulations to better understand the nature of our magnetosphere and what happens when it becomes extremely tangled.

Using a Cray XT5 Jaguar supercomputer, the physicists can better predict the effects of space weather, such as solar storms, before they actually hit our planet. According to Homa Karimabadi, a space physicist at the University of California-San Diego (UCSD), “When a storm goes off on the sun, we can’t really predict the extent of damage that it will cause here on Earth. It is critical that we develop this predictive capability.” He adds: “With petascale computing we can now perform 3D global particle simulations of the magnetosphere that treat the ions as particles, but the electrons are kept as a fluid. It is now possible to address these problems at a resolution that was well out of reach until recently.”

It helps that the radiation from solar storms can take 1-5 days to reach Earth, providing some lead time to assess the impact and any potential damage.

The previous studies were done using the Cray XT5 system known as Kraken; with the new Cray XT5 Jaguar supercomputer, they can perform simulations three times as large. The earlier simulations contained a “resolution” of about 1 billion individual particles, while the new ones contain about 3.2 trillion, a major improvement.

So next time you are eating that big plate of spaghetti, look up – the universe has its own recipes as well.

The original press release from Oak Ridge National Laboratory is here.


Paul Scott Anderson is a freelance space writer with a life-long passion for space exploration and astronomy and has been a long-time member of The Planetary Society. He currently writes for Universe Today and Examiner.com. His own blog The Meridiani Journal is a chronicle of planetary exploration.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Carlos Tello February 9, 2012, 8:11 PM

    I can only say that that’s the confirmation of the existence of the Flying Spaguetti Monster. Ramen!

  • Clinton Talionis February 9, 2012, 8:12 PM

    I see the flying spaghetti monster at work…. RAmen

    • Anonymous February 10, 2012, 2:10 AM


  • Eduardo Mariño February 9, 2012, 8:59 PM


  • Ivan B February 9, 2012, 9:22 PM

    It looks like yarn

  • Anonymous February 9, 2012, 9:23 PM

    A question for the experts (no not de domesdayers and the EU)

    Earth moves around the sun, in it’s magnetic field. I assume that since we orbit a circle, it has no effect on us in regard of changing of the Earth’s magnetic field. (like losing or even gaining magnetic energy?) An incoming CME is a different story.

    Second, any object can have a maximum charge. The more mass, the bigger the object can hold one of the charges gravitationally. Any bigger than this maximum and the Sun repels the additional charges. Although sun heating can separate + and – charges in it’s plasma bigger than the maximum charge possible, the combined charge stays zero and has no effect outside the Sun.
    Does this maximum charge on the sun define the maximum possible magnetic field produced by the Sun? Or can a Sun which is neutral charged also produce a magnetic field?

    • Anonymous February 10, 2012, 12:11 AM

      Magnetic fields are the same in all frames. They transform by the Lorentz equations of relativity. The magnetic field of a bar magnet at rest with respect to Earth or the solar system is the same as one would find if the magnet and observer were moving at any velocity v < c.


  • Anonymous February 10, 2012, 12:17 AM

    This picture almost does not make sense. The magnetic field lines leaving the N and S poles are colored green and yellow. However, these field lines seem to wander off into distant space, where they should reconnect in loops. I would at least expect a more normal dipole type of field near the Earth. Maybe that more local portion of the field is removed from the picture. I can accept that field lines far from the Earth get trapped by plasma and carried off. I am presuming this field is being subjected to a huge CME.


    • Torbjörn Larsson February 10, 2012, 8:15 PM

      I was thinking much the same. These images probably only makes sense in the used model. I clicked through, and it’s a mixed model, with ions as particles and electrons as a fluid. They try to model turbulent mixing of field lines, but at a guess not reconnection.

      If so, if they wanted to get to that next step while keeping with the known model machinery, they would have to run a code to identify reconnection conditions and perform the field line ‘surgery’.

      Sort of how the 2gen surface topology codes of integrated circuit processing worked, with node tracking and identification and surgery of caustics, which are directly analogous to reconnection conditions I think. (Some 3gen codes used proper wavefront Huygens principle formalism for surface propagation instead, which makes caustics easy to spot.)

  • Anonymous February 10, 2012, 2:14 AM

    Yes, I think we need some info on the pic like where do the pink and red lines come from, why are the field lines depicted seeming to cover only about a tenth of the expected torus, how far do the trailing ends go and why north and south as opposed to perhaps, following the direction of the CME?

  • HeadAroundU February 10, 2012, 9:31 AM

    Cool stuff.

  • Anonymous February 10, 2012, 5:46 PM

    Mercury Messenger has seen tornado shaped solar mag. fields interacting with Mercury. By the time those fields have expanded outward to Earth’s orbit the tornado shapes would be much larger… like an uncoiling spring… correct? And would spin CCW or CW (as viewed from Sol) according to charge?

  • Anonymous February 11, 2012, 12:58 PM

    Why does everyone seem so certain the FSM is a “him”? New convert here so I’m just wondering.