Solved: The Mystery of Earth’s Theta Aurora

From the ground, aurora have mystified humans since we began to question the world. The space age revealed more mystery - the Theta Auroral Oval (inset) and the challenge of understanding the phenomena. (Photo Credit: NASA/APOD)

The mystery of the northern lights – aurora – spans time beyond history and to cultures of both the southern and northern hemispheres. The mystery involves the lights, fantastic patterns and mystical changes. Ancient men and women stood huddled under them wondering what it meant. Was it messages from the gods, the spirits of loved ones, warnings or messages to comfort their souls?

Aurora reside literally at the edge of space. While we know the basics and even more, we are still learning. A new published work has just added to our understanding by explaining how one type of aurora – the Theta Aurora – is created from the interaction of the charged particles, electric and magnetic fields surrounding the Earth. Their conclusions required the coordination of simultaneous observations of two missions.

The Theta Auroral Oval as observed by the NASA IMAGE FUV camera on September 15, 2005. (Credit: NASA/SWRI)
The Theta Auroral Oval as observed by the NASA IMAGE FUV camera on September 15, 2005 and anlayzed using Cluster data in the paper by Fear et al. (Credit: NASA/SWRI)

We were not aware of Thetas until the advent of the space age and our peering back at Earth. They cannot be recognized from the ground. The auroras that bystanders see from locales such as Norway or New Zealand are just arcs and subsets of the bigger picture which is the auroral ovals atop the polar regions of the Earth. Ground based all-sky cameras and polar orbiting probes had seen what were deemed “polar cap arcs.” However, it was a spacecraft Dynamics Explorer I (DE-1) that was the first to make global images of the auroral ovals and observed the first “transpolar arcs”, that is, the Theta aurora.

They are named Theta after the Greek letter that they resemble. Thetas are uncommon and do not persist long. Early on in the exploration of this phenomenon, researchers have been aware that they occur when the Sun’s magnetic field, called the Interplanetary Magnetic Field (IMF) turns northward. Most of the time the IMF in the vicinity of the Earth points south. It is a critical aspect of the Sun-Earth interaction. The southerly pointing field is able to dovetail readily with the normal direction of the Earth’s magnetic field. The northward IMF interacting with the Earth’s field is similar to two bar magnets turned head to head, repelling each other. When the IMF flips northward locally, a convolution takes place that will, at times, but not always, produce a Theta aurora.

A group of researchers led by Dr. Robert Fear from the Department of Physics & Astronomy, University of Leicester, through analysis of simultaneous spacecraft observations, has identified how the particles and fields interact to produce Theta aurora. Their study, “Direct observation of closed magnetic flux trapped in the high-latitude magnetosphere” in the Journal Science (December 19, 2014, Vol 346) utilized a combination of data from ESA’s Cluster spacecraft mission and the IMAGE spacecraft of NASA. The specific event in the Earth’s magnetosphere on September 15, 2005 was observed simultaneously by the spacecraft of both missions.

Illustrations of the Cluster II spacecraft in orbit and formation around the Earth and the NASA IMAGE spacecraft vehicle design. The two mission's observations were combined to correlate numerous auroral and magnetospheric events. Cluster II remains in operation as of December 2014 (14 yr lifespan). (Credit: ESA, NASA)
Illustrations of the Cluster II spacecraft in orbit and formation around the Earth and the NASA IMAGE spacecraft vehicle design. The two mission’s observations were combined to correlate numerous auroral and magnetospheric events. Cluster II remains in operation as of December 2014 (14 yr lifespan). (Credit: ESA, NASA)

Due to the complexity of the Sun-Earth relationship involving neutral and charged particles and electric and magnetic fields, space scientists have long attempted to make simultaneous measurements with multiple spacecraft. ISEE-1, 2 and 3 were one early attempt. Another was the Dynamics Explorer 1 & 2 spacecraft. DE-2 was in a low orbit while DE-1 was in an elongated orbit taking it deeper into the magnetosphere. At times, the pair would align on the same magnetic field lines. The field lines are like rails that guide the charged particles from far out in the magneto-tail to all the way down to the upper atmosphere – the ionosphere. Placing two or more spacecraft on the same field lines presented the means of making coordinated observations of the same event. Dr. Fear and colleagues analyzed data when ESA’s Cluster resided in the southern lobe of the magnetotail and NASA’s IMAGE (Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration) spacecraft resided above the south polar region of the Earth.

Cluster is a set of four spacecraft, still in operation after 14 years. Together with IMAGE, five craft were observing the event. Fear, et al utilized ESA spacecraft Cluster 1 (of four) and NASA’s IMAGE. On that fateful day, the IMF turned north. As described in Dr. Fear’s paper, on that day, the north and south lobes of the magnetosphere were closed. The magnetic field lines of the lobes were separated from the Solar wind and IMF due to what is called magnetic reconnection. The following diagram shows how complex Earth’s magnetosphere is; with regions such as the bow shock, magnetopause, cusps, magnetotail, particle belts and the lobes.

Illustration of the Earth's magnetosphere showing it complexity. The Theta Aurora are now confidently linked to magnetic reconnection events in the lobes of the magnetotail. (Credit: NASA)
Illustration of the Earth’s magnetosphere showing it complexity. The Theta Aurora are now confidently linked to magnetic reconnection events in the lobes of the magnetotail. (Credit: NASA)

The science paper explains that what was previously observed by only lower altitude spacecraft was captured by Cluster within the magnetotail lobes. The southerly lobe’s plasma – ionized particles – was very energetic. The measurements revealed that the southern lobe of the magnetotail was acting as a bottle and the particles were bouncing between two magnetic mirrors, that is, the lobes were close due to reconnection. The particles were highly energetic.

The presence of what is called a double loss cone signature in the electron energy distribution was a clear indicator that the particles were trapped and oscillating between mirror points. The consequences for the Earth’s ionosphere was that highly energetic particles flooded down the field lines from the lobes and impacted the upper atmosphere transferring their energy and causing the magnificent light show that we know as the Northern Lights (or Southern) in the form of a Theta Auroral Oval. This strong evidence supports the theory that Theta aurora are produced by energized particles from within closed field lines and not by energetic particles directly from the Solar Wind that find a path into the magnetosphere and reach the upper atmosphere of the Earth.

A video of an observed major geomagnetic storm (July 15, 2000) taken by the Far Ultraviolet Imaging System (FUV) on IMAGE. IMAGE operated from 2000 to December 2005 when communications were lost. (Credit: NASA/SWRI)  [click to view the animated gif]
A video of an observed major geomagnetic storm (July 15, 2000, southward IMF) taken by the Far Ultraviolet Imaging System (FUV) on the spacecraft IMAGE. IMAGE operated from 2000 until December 2005 when communications were inexplicably lost. (Credit: NASA/SWRI) [click to view the animated gif]
Without the coordination of the observations and the collective analysis, the Theta aurora phenomenon would continue to be debated. The analysis by Dr. Fear, while not definitive, is strong proof that Theta aurora are generated from particles trapped within closed field lines.

The analysis of the Cluster mission data as well as that of many other missions takes years. Years after observations are made researchers can achieve new understanding through study of arduous details or sometimes by a ha-ha moment. Aurora represent the signature of the interaction of two magnetic fields and two populations of particles – the Sun’s field and energetic particles streaming at millions of miles per hour from its surface reaching the Earth’s magnetic field. The Earth’s field is transformed by the interaction and receives energetic particles that it bottles up and energizes further. Ultimately, the Earth’s magnetic field directs some of these particles to the topside of our atmosphere. For thousands and likely tens of thousands of years, humans have questioned what it all means. Now another piece of the puzzle has been laid down with a good degree of certainty; one that explains the Theta aurora.


Direct observation of closed magnetic flux trapped in the high-latitude magnetosphere

Transpolar arc evolution and associated potential patterns

Transpolar aurora: time evolution, associated convection patterns, and a possible cause

Related articles at Universe Today:

Guide to Space –

Earth’s Magnetic Field,

Aurora Borealis

Virtual Star Party – January 5, 2014: Jupiter in Opposition and 6 Telescopes!

Hosts: Fraser Cain and Scott Lewis

David Dickinson in Florida
Michael Phillips in North Carolina
Bill McLaughlin in Oregon
Gary Gonella in California
Paul Stewart in New Zealand
Shahrin Ahmad in Malaysia
Stuart Foreman in San Francisco
Thad Szabo in California
Continue reading “Virtual Star Party – January 5, 2014: Jupiter in Opposition and 6 Telescopes!”

Where All The Hottest Stars Gather

The star cluster NGC 6604 (ESO)


An ESO telescope captures a group of hot young stars that would outshine any Hollywood party!

At the upper left of this image is the star cluster NGC 6604, a grouping of hot young stars within a larger collection located in the sky near the much more famous Eagle Nebula (of “Pillars of Creation” fame.) The young stars, which burn bright and blue, are helping make a new generation of stars with their strong stellar winds, which condense nearby gas and dust into even more star-forming regions.

Eventually the new stars will replace the ones seen here, which, although big and bright, will quickly burn through their stellar fuel and fade. Such is the life cycle of massive stars — live fast and die young.

This image was acquired by the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. NGC 6604 is about 5,500 light-years from Earth, located in the constellation Serpens. Read more on the ESO news release here.

Structure of the Universe

Galaxy cluster Abell 85, seen by Chandra, left, and a model of the growth of cosmic structure when the Universe was 0.9 billion, 3.2 billion and 13.7 billion years old (now). Credit: Chandra

[/caption]The large-scale structure of the Universe is made up of voids and filaments, that can be broken down into superclusters, clusters, galaxy groups, and subsequently into galaxies. At a relatively smaller scale, we know that galaxies are made up of stars and their constituents, our own Solar System being one of them.

By understanding the hierarchical structure of things, we are able to gain a clearer visualization of the roles each individual component plays and how they fit into the larger picture. For example, if we go down to the world of the very small, we know that molecules can be chopped down into atoms; atoms into protons, electrons, and neutrons; then the protons and neutrons into quarks and so on.

But what about the very large? What is the large-scale structure of the universe? What exactly are superclusters and filaments and voids? Let’s start by looking at galaxy groupings and move on to even larger structures.

Although there are some galaxies that are found to stray away by their lonesome, most of them are actually bundled into groups and clusters. Groups are smaller, usually made up of less than 50 galaxies and can have diameters up to 6 million light-years. In fact, the group in which our Milky Way is a member of is made up of only a little over 40 galaxies.

Generally speaking, clusters are bunches of 50 to 1,000 galaxies that can have diameters of up to 2-10 megaparsecs. One very peculiar property of clusters is that the velocities of their galaxies are supposed to be too high for gravity alone to keep them bunched together … and yet they are.

The idea that dark matter exists starts at this scale of structure. Dark matter is believed to provide the gravitational force that keeps them all bunched up.

A great number of groups, clusters and individual galaxies can come together to form the next larger structure – superclusters. Superclusters are among the largest structures ever to be discovered in the universe.

The largest single structure to be identified is the Sloan Great Wall, a vast sheet of galaxies that span a length of 500 million light-years, a width of 200 million light-years and a thickness of only 15 million light-years.

Due to the limitations of today’s measuring devices, there is a maximum level to which we can zoom out. At that level, we see a universe made up of mainly two components. There are the threadlike structures known as filaments that are made up of isolated galaxies, groups, clusters and superclusters. And then there are vast empty bubbles of empty space called voids.

You can read more about structure of the universe here in Universe Today. Want to read about the cosmic void: could we be in the middle of it? We’ve also written about probing the large scale structure of the universe.

There’s more about it at NASA. Here are a couple of sources there:

Here are two episodes at Astronomy Cast that you might want to check out as well:

Sources: NASA WMAP, NASA: Sheets and Voids