41,000 Years Ago Earth’s Shield Went Down

An illustration of Earth's magnetic field. Image Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Earth is naked without its protective barrier. The planet’s magnetic shield surrounds Earth and shelters it from the natural onslaught of cosmic rays. But sometimes, the shield weakens and wavers, allowing cosmic rays to strike the atmosphere, creating a shower of particles that scientists think could wreak havoc on the biosphere.

This has happened many times in our planet’s history, including 41,000 years ago in an event called the Laschamps excursion.

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What Can Early Earth Teach Us About the Search for Life?

This view of Earth from space is a fusion of science and art, drawing on data from multiple satellite missions and the talents of NASA scientists and graphic artists. This image originally appeared in the NASA Earth Observatory story Twin Blue Marbles. Image Credits: NASA images by Reto Stöckli, based on data from NASA and NOAA.

Earth is the only life-supporting planet we know of, so it’s tempting to use it as a standard in the search for life elsewhere. But the modern Earth can’t serve as a basis for evaluating exoplanets and their potential to support life. Earth’s atmosphere has changed radically over its 4.5 billion years.

A better way is to determine what biomarkers were present in Earth’s atmosphere at different stages in its evolution and judge other planets on that basis.

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Earth Had a Magnetosphere 3.7 Billion Years Ago

The magnetic field and electric currents in and around Earth generate complex forces that have immeasurable impact on every day life. The field can be thought of as a huge bubble -- called the magnetosphere --, protecting us from cosmic radiation and charged particles that bombard Earth in solar winds. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
The magnetic field and electric currents in and around Earth generate complex forces that have immeasurable impact on every day life. The field can be thought of as a huge bubble -- called the magnetosphere -- protecting us from cosmic radiation and charged particles that bombard Earth in solar winds. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

We go about our daily lives sheltered under an invisible magnetic field generated deep inside Earth. It forms the magnetosphere, a region dominated by the magnetic field. Without that planetary protection shield, we’d experience harmful cosmic radiation and charged particles from the Sun.

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How Animal Movements Help Us Study the Planet

This map shows how elephants moved across Kruger National Park in South Africa over one year. Image Credit: Thaker, M., et al. (2019)

Scientists have been underutilizing a key resource we can use to help us understand Earth: animals. Our fellow Earthlings have a much different, and usually much more direct, relationship with the Earth. They move around the planet in ways and to places we don’t.

What can their movements tell us?

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Gravity From Mars has an Effect on Earth’s Oceans

Earth and Mars

We are all too familiar of the Moon’s effect on our planet. It’s relentless tug causes our tides but even Mars, which is always at least 55 million kilometres away, can have a subtle effect too. A study has revealed a 2.4 million year cycle in the geological records that show the gentle warming and cooling of our oceans. The records match the interactions between the orbits of Earth and Mars over the longest timescales. These are known as the ‘astronomical grand cycles’ but to date, not much evidence has been found. 

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Earth’s Long-Term Habitability Relies on Chemical Cycles. How Can We Better Understand Them?

Biogeochemical cycles move matter around Earth between the atmosphere, the oceans, the lithosphere, and living things. Image Credit: By Alexander Davronov - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=106124364

We, and all other complex life, require stability to evolve. Planetary conditions needed to be benign and long-lived for creatures like us and our multicellular brethren to appear and to persist. On Earth, chemical cycling provides much of the needed stability.

Chemical cycling between the land, atmosphere, lifeforms, and oceans is enormously complex and difficult to study. Typically, researchers try to isolate one cycle and study it. However, new research is examining Earth’s chemical cycling more holistically to try to understand how the planet has stayed in the ‘sweet spot’ for so long.

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Satellite Measurements Show That Global Carbon Emissions are Still Rising

Tracking carbon emissions and sinks to determine Earth's annual Global Carbon Budget. Credit: NASA GEOS

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), human activities have significantly impacted the planet. As global greenhouse gas emissions (mainly carbon dioxide) have continued to increase, so too have global temperatures – with severe ecological consequences. Between 2011 and 2020, global surface temperatures rose by an estimated 1.07 °C (2.01 °F) above the average in 1850–1900. At this rate, temperatures could further increase by 1.5 to 2 °C (2.7 to 3.6 °F) in the coming decades, depending on whether we can achieve net zero by 2050.

Unfortunately, the data for the past year is not encouraging. According to the 2023 Global Carbon Budget (GCB), an annual assessment of Earth’s carbon cycle, emissions in 2023 continued to rise by 1.1 percent compared to the previous year. This placed the total fossil fuel emissions from anthropogenic sources at 36.8 billion metric tons (over 40 US tons) of carbon dioxide, with an additional 4.1 billion metric tons (4.5 US tons) added by deforestation, extreme wildfires, and other sources. This trend indicates we are moving away from our goals and that things will get worse before they get better!

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See the Dramatic Final Moments of the Doomed ERS-2 Satellite

The ESA's ERS-2 Earth observation satellite was destroyed when it re-entered Earth's atmosphere on February 21st 2004. Heavy parts of satellites like reaction wheels don't don't always burn up in the atmosphere and can pose a hazard. ESA engineers are working on reaction wheels that will break into pieces to reduce the hazard. Image Credit: Fraunhofer FHR

When a satellite reaches the end of its life, it has only two destinations. It can either be maneuvered into a graveyard orbit, a kind of purgatory for satellites, or it plunges to its destruction in Earth’s atmosphere. The ESA’s ERS-2 satellite took the latter option after 30 years in orbit.

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Can the Gaia Hypothesis Be Tested in the Lab?

A new paper proposes an experimental setup that could test the classic Daisyworld model — a hypothesis of a self-regulating planetary ecosystem — in the lab via two synthetic bacterial strains. Credit: Victor Maull/Image Designer

During the 1970s, inventor/environmentalist James Lovelock and evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis proposed the Gaia Hypothesis. This theory posits that Earth is a single, self-regulating system where the atmosphere, hydrosphere, all life, and their inorganic surroundings work together to maintain the conditions for life on the planet. This theory was largely inspired by Lovelock’s work with NASA during the 1960s, where the skilled inventor designed instruments for modeling the climate of Mars and other planets in the Solar System.

According to this theory, planets like Earth would slowly grow warmer and their oceans more acidic without a biosphere that regulates temperature and ensures climate stability. While the theory was readily accepted among environmentalists and climatologists, many in the scientific community have remained skeptical since it was proposed. Until now, it has been impossible to test this theory because it involves forces that work on a planetary scale. But in a recent paper, a team of Spanish scientists proposed an experimental system incorporating synthetic biology that could test the theory on a small scale.

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Cosmic Dust Could Spread Life from World to World Across the Galaxy

Could life spread throughout the galaxy on tiny grains of dust? It would be a perilous journey, but new research shows its possible and calculates how long it would take to spread. Image Credit: ESO

Does life appear independently on different planets in the galaxy? Or does it spread from world to world? Or does it do both?

New research shows how life could spread via a basic, simple pathway: cosmic dust.

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