Cluster Satellite Detects Rifts in Earth’s Magnetic Field

Article written: 22 Jan , 2010
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015


While Earth’s magnetic field protects our planet from most of the permanent flow of particles from the solar wind, rifts or fissures in natural shield are known to occur, enabling the solar wind to penetrate our near-space environment. An ESA satellite cluster called, appropriately, Cluster has provided new insight into the location and duration of these ruptures in the Earth’s magnetic shield, and reveals while our atmosphere protects us for the most part, clear effects of these rifts have been detected high in the upper atmosphere and in the region of space around Earth where satellites orbit.

This study reports the observation of fissures on the Sun-facing side of the Earth’s magnetic shield – the dayside magnetopause. Fortunately, these fissures don’t expose Earth’s surface to the solar wind; our atmosphere protects us. But the upper atmosphere is affected. ,

clear effects have been detected high in the upper atmosphere and in the region of space around Earth where satellites orbit. Credit: ESA

The dominant physical process causing these cracks is known as magnetic reconnection, a process whereby magnetic field lines from different magnetic domains collide and reconnect: opening the closed magnetic shield. Magnetic reconnection is a physical process at work throughout the Universe, from star formation to solar explosions to experimental fusion reactors on Earth. However, the conditions under which it occurs and how long it lasts remain unclear.

What is known is that magnetic reconnection leads to the mixing of previously separated plasmas when, for instance, the solar wind plasma enters the magnetosphere. In this instance the two magnetic domains are the Earth’s internal magnetic field, and the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF). (The solar wind is not only composed of solar particles (mostly protons and electrons), it also carries the Sun’s magnetic field. Out among the planets, this field is the IMF.)

For more than 700,000 years, the South to North orientation of the terrestrial magnetic field has been rather steady. In contrast, the IMF orientation is highly variable, with total inversion frequently observed on times-scales of minutes.

Reconnection between the IMF and the Earth’s magnetic field critically depends on the angle between these fields. Space physicists have made a distinction between reconnection when both fields are in opposite directions, or anti-parallel, and component reconnection, when the IMF is neither parallel nor anti-parallel to the terrestrial magnetic field. The distinction is important since component and anti-parallel reconnection have different onset characteristics and lead to different duration of the fissures in the magnetic shield. The distinction between these two types of magnetic reconnection has been the subject of hot debate among space scientists for many years.

The position, on 25 February 2005, of the Cluster satellite constellation and the Double Star TC-1 satellite with respect to the magnetopause. Blue lines represent magnetic field lines related to the Earth's magnetic field. Spacecraft configurations are scaled by a factor of 5.

For the first time, four spacecraft flying in constellation (the ESA Cluster mission), have provided unambiguous evidence of anti-parallel reconnection at high latitude on the dayside magnetopause, occurring quasi-simultaneously with a period of low-latitude component reconnection detected by the Sino-European Double Star TC-1 satellite. TC-1 and the Cluster array (with the Cluster spacecraft separated by ~2000 km) are more than 30,000 km apart (see below.) The 3D reconnection picture, determined by repeated sampling of the ion diffusion region and associated magnetic null fields (i.e. the heart of the reconnection process). 2.

“These observations support the idea that both anti-parallel and component reconnection occur at the dayside magnetopause under the same IMF conditions and that both phenomena might be the local signatures of a global reconnection picture”, says Professor Malcolm Dunlop from the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Didcot, UK.

“This remarkable set of observations shows that magnetic reconnection at the magnetopause is not as simple as it is described in textbooks! It also demonstrates the need for the capability to study magnetic reconnection at multiple scales simultaneously”, says Matt Taylor, acting Cluster project scientist at the European Space Agency.

Source: ESA

18 Responses

  1. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says

    Again really nice fodder for the EU crackpots especially like one-eyed Anaconda and that quack electrician, Solrey.

    Magnetic field generated from the sun and the interaction of them to the Earth’s own field is important. However, it is not the overriding force in the environment of the solar system or the anagalactic magnetic field.
    It is gravity that mainly drives the fusion in the core of our Sun and stars, and its consequence also ultimately generates the solar wind and the magnetic fields.
    No doubt the fundamental science and mathematics behind astrophysical-sized magnetic fields and their interactions are very complicated. They are indeed difficult concepts even for the layperson, but that does not mean the basics of astronomy and astrophysics (as we already understand it) has to be literally “thrown out with the bath water”.
    Of course, you will hear these EU quacks pretending it a’int so and that their “personal theories” will deny much of which science and astrophysics has already verified. Here, inaccurate arguments like the superfluous “gravity only model” of the universe (often stated by Anaconda and his EU ilk) have never been the basis of astrophysical theory. Such a story as elaborated in this one here, clearly shows magnetic fields and their interactions also play a very vital role in astrophysics – but it is not the only story of our present adopted scientific knowledge.

    Pretending in wanton illusions that it isn’t so is clearly delusional at best, and personal agenda-driven at worst.

    Sadly, such very interesting stories as given by Nancy here will soon be quickly highjacked by usual “in your face” EU crack-pottery. My advise here is just to ignore these fruitcakes!


    @ Nancy Aitkenson

    One day I would really like a ‘normal’ discussion on magnetic fields and their interactions without someone trying to highjack the story for their own self-interest. I believe these EU nutters are doing themselves a gross disservice because they do not allow anyone to learn about aspects of topics given in this news story. IMO, if they are unable to do so they should be silenced either by advising to totally ignoring them or again completely deleting their disruptive messages. In this view, you have my 100% support. Thanks.

  2. Olaf says

    Actually magnetic reconnection means bad news for EU crackpots since they claim it cannot exist. LOL

  3. Lawrence B. Crowell says

    Magnetic reconnection is rather interesting in a way, for it means there is a bifurcation point where there are two magnetic field lines who’s tangent vectors are not parallel. This is a sort of caustic, which must be “rounded off” at some level, or else physics does not make sense, possibly by quantum mechanics.

    The EU guys always fall back on Alfven, for he did manage to get a number of things right. The problem is that he got some things wrong as well. It is not his fault, even Einstein was wrong on a few things. The problem is that the EU crowd have some idea that Alfven was some super-human who got everything figured out about the universe. He was dead wrong on this.


  4. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says

    @ iantresman;

    “I believe that the “EU Crackpots” have few theories of their own…”

    Just a reminder that you should read the Comment policy: which says; “Don’t advertise your stuff, or promote your personal theories.”

    By all rights, your response here should be deleted!!

  5. ND says

    Good lord, everyone has missed the most obvious and egregious error in this story. The first diagram puts the Sun just inside the Moon’s orbit! And this comes from NASA of all places! Maybe NASA needs more money.

  6. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says

    @ iantresman;

    Bring up the paper of Heikkila, W. J. (1990) is an attempt at a joke here, right?

    Much of this article directly reflects and utilises the real modern motivations behind the “EU crackpots” and their desire to inflict ‘pseudo-science’ in real astrophysical data and theory.

    I.e. pg 49 of this article provides the useful clues to the delusion ‘pseudo-science’ of EU proponents; i.e.

    “With regard to mental inertia, Kuhn (1970, p.77) has remarked that it is always hard to renounce the paradigm that has lead to crisis ‘The decision to reject one paradigm is always simultaneously the decision to accept another, and the judgement leading to that decision involved the comparison of both paradigms with nature and with each other.’ Perhaps it should be. You may recall Hurley (1968) that ‘the slow acceptance… provides a good example of the intensive scrutiny to which scientific theories are subjected, particularly in the earth science where the evidence is often conflicting and where experimental demonstrations are usually not possible.”

    Clearly this argument is not science but some misplaced ideological belief! Yet when you are presented with actual new observations obtained from the ESA Cluster mission, all you can do is claim some obscure and mostly old historical mumbo-jumbo.

    The only thing ‘misleading’ is that anything the EU proponents say about ‘scientific’ ideas is dripping with philosophical concepts, alternative agendas (via pedagogical concepts, just to quote Alfven) and of course multiple unproven suppositions.

    It is exactly like this paper says from the first two sentences of Heikkila’s paper;

    Quite often the course of some human endeavo[u]r is greatly advanced by one person with imagination and foresight. Such has been the case with solar-terrestrial physics….

    Really. Does not “Imagination and foresight” bears little consequent in science when compared with ACTUAL observation and theory (that at least explains that observation). If we were to believe Heikkila, ) and the EU crackpots (the Dunderdolts), it seems all you actually need is a little faith and to conjure up things from tea leaves, chicken entrails and crystal balls.

    Isn’t desperately holding on to the concept; “that if I observe something in a laboratory, and therefore it must also apply universally”, is the biggest illusion imaginable?

    We can only concluded, therefore much of the previous and clearly speculative ideas of the topology of magnetic fields and concepts magnetic reconnection of Alfvén’s (and others) relating back to the 1930s and 1940s are, in fact, totally irrelevant and already superseded.

    So when you have real data, at least you can formally investigate the phenomena, and state and conclude; as Matt Taylor does;

    “This remarkable set of OBSERVATIONS shows that magnetic reconnection at the magnetopause is not as simple as it is described in textbooks! It also demonstrates the need for the capability to study magnetic reconnection at multiple scales simultaneously”,

    Some joke!

  7. William928 says


    You obviously have a great deal of training/study in astronomy/physics/astrophysics, and I generally agree with your posts. However, you seem to sometimes be guilty of exactly the type of behavior you decry in others, chiefly writing incredibly loooooooong posts, many times longer than the original article. I was going to keep quiet about this until your unneccesary and unwarranted attack on Tammy. Those in glass houses and all that…..

  8. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says


    Yes i agree that the previous post was too long. However it does surmise well the origins of current proponents of EU, and shows clearly where they get their distorted ideas from.

    Whilst it is lengthy, much of it is quoted text which others can see the contradictions in what they say. My aim was only to short circuit the usually vitriolic claptrap often associate with these stories.

    As to my general tactics, you may be right about those ‘glass houses’ mimicking similar behaviours, and perhaps I should be a bit more forgiving. When it comes to EU its is hard to hold back., especially when you know their agenda and aims.

    Thanks very much for your seemingly genuine comments.

    Note: As to Tammy article… well that is really on a different story. Needless to say my point was not so aimed solely at her but to the poorly understood nature about planetary nebula and what many sources wrongly quote. Fatal flaws sometimes need to be corrected not perpetuated ad hoc. M76 is a classic example that has been pointed out not just by me.

  9. William928 says

    Thank you for your well reasoned response. As I said above, I generally agree with your positions, particularly when you point out the flaws in the EU proponents “theories”. Keep up the good fight.

    Cheers, Bill (an enlightened American)

  10. solrey says

    A different explanation for the same effect.


    Thus we have obtained the expression for the density of the electric field which is produced under the Bow Shock and is directed into the cavity formed by the BS. According to all indications, it is just the current that feeds electromagnetic energy to magnetospheric processes. Firstly, it depends on the By- and Bz-components of the IMF, and, secondly, it has a negative dawn-dusk component that depends only on Bz, and the north-southward component that depends only on By. It is such an association with IMF By that is revealed by geomagnetic variations [Uvarov et al., 1989].

    In fact, inside the magnetosphere is a constant energy consumer, the Earth’s ionosphere. It is known that the energy flux density through the surface is proportional to the electric field component tangent to this surface.

    Any change in external current through the magnetosphere causes a convection restructuring within a time on the order of the travel time of the magnetosonic wave from the magnetopause to the center of the system, because the restructuring wave comes from both flanks. In our model this implies the transition from the two-vortex to four-vortex convection system.

    Torbjorn Larsson OM Says:
    But as I noted above, it drives convection in the ionosphere and this seems to be a major dayside (the article context) effect.

    In the context of the paper linked above, I agree. 😉

  11. Lawrence B. Crowell says

    A magnetic field that dynamically evolves, and further which does so in other than in a purely dipole symmetry will have these bifurcation of magnetic field lines. These result in large changes in magnetic fields that evolve in time, which are associated with large Maxwellian displacement currents, or equivalently electric fields. Local regions of bifurcations of magnetic field (reconnections etc) are where electromagnetic energy is produced. These will generate little bursts of EM radiation. There is nothing particularly magical about this. As a magnetic field evolves, here in response to a flux of charged particles, magnetic field lines can bifurcate along some direction. This leads to these “rifts” reported here.

    There is nothing mysterious about this, and no reason to presume this points to some radical change in the foundations of physics. This is complicated physics, but really it is largely rather normal stuff with nothing suggesting we need some so called paradigm shift of the EU cosmology.


  12. sol88 says

    Wow still so much hostility toward the obvious correct paradigm of EU.

    “leads to the mixing of previously separated plasmas”

    Two different plasma’s interacting would make all kinds of funky tangeled and reconecting magnetic fields, no?

    but “But the upper atmosphere is affected” how? Thats what I’d like to know.

  13. Member
    Aqua says

    “Fortunately, these fissures don’t expose Earth’s surface to the solar wind; our atmosphere protects us. But the upper atmosphere is affected.”

    Energy injected into the upper atmosphere and thereby accelerating wind/storm patterns? On Earth as it is on Mars? The similarity between the shape of the injected magnetic fields and tornado/dust devil structures anyone?

  14. Torbjorn Larsson OM says

    Besides driving convection et cetera, I find it awesome that reconnection drives plasma jets. From quasi-static flow to turbulence and new distributions big time, what’s not to like.

    @ Sol88:

    Ordinarily I wouldn’t answer a troll, but as you ask a pertinent science question right after your anti-science propaganda (which has no place on a science blog, in case you don’t understand that):

    “But the upper atmosphere is affected” how?

    Depends on where the reconnection takes place and gives a lot of different phenomena. But as I noted above, it drives convection in the ionosphere and this seems to be a major dayside (the article context) effect.

  15. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb — if you don’t want the EU folks to comment, why did you basically open the door and lay down the red carpet for them to start commenting on this post? Certainly I don’t support what they say, but lord, don’t feed the trolls! Your opening comment pretty much said, “Here you go EUer’s — here’s one you should post a comment on!”

  16. Lawrence B. Crowell says

    I agree that one should not feed trolls, equally for the EU or anti-global warming varieties. I do think that those who have some understanding ot the real science might want to comment on that, and reference how these EU types are wrong. This can be done in an indirect manner, indicrect in that the post does not primarily address the EU troll directly. If nothing is said, then some of these pages will end up as EU discussion sites, and the converse problem with addressing trolls is these sites might become tiresome armwrestling matches in cyberspace.


  17. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says

    @ Nancy

    What you say is probably true. However, to answer your question here, the difficult point is someone who knows nothing or very little about EU are the main target of these bloggers. The reason for the desperation by EU is to gaining a foothold of credibility, by whatever means available. They believe by just creating ‘some doubt’ gives far more credence to their views, and perhaps a more sympathetic viewpoint towards them.

    My introductory comment was mostly to state a reasonable case which supports the context of your interesting and accessible story on the Earth’s magnetic field and ‘short-circuiting’ the usual unfettered nonsense.

    One of the biggest problems with “don’t feed the trolls” is the bloggers see this as an great opportunity to make controversial or radical statements – feeling whatever they say will now go uncontested. (In this view “don’t feed the trolls” only encourages them. [A good example is the recent UT climate change debate article “Scientist Discusses Latest Report of Rising Global Temperatures”, which is hijacked by only one individual.]

    UT editors, as do all other news sites, have a really difficult problem here. Do they allow all responders free reign or do they remove items (and be accused of unwarranted censorship)?

    Regardless of all these negative issues, I do appreciate the efforts that go into these science stories.

  18. Aodhhan says

    Lawrence B. Crowell Says:
    Magnetic reconnection is rather interesting in a way, for it means there is a bifurcation point where there are two magnetic field lines who’s tangent vectors are not parallel. This is a sort of caustic, which must be “rounded off” at some level, or else physics does not make sense, possibly by quantum mechanics.

    WHAT kind of “twat speak” is this?

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