New Computer Simulations Show Earth’s Spaghetti-Like Magnetosphere

by Paul Scott Anderson on February 9, 2012

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.

About 

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.

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