Electrons Can Get Accelerated to Nearly the Speed of Light As They Interact With the Earth’s Magnetosphere

Electrons serve many purposes in physics.  They are used by some particle accelerators and they underpin our modern world in the silicon chips that run the world’s computers.  They’re also prevalent in space, where they can occasionally be seen floating around in a plasma in the magnetospheres of planets.  Now, a team from the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ) lead by Drs Hayley Allison and Yuri Shprits have discovered that those electrons present in the magnetosphere can be accelerated up to relativistic speeds, and that could potentially be hazardous to our increasing orbital infrastructure.

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Astronomy Cast Ep. 393: The Standard Model – Leptons & Quarks

Physicists are getting a handle on the structure of the Universe, how everything is made of something else. Molecules are made of atoms, atoms are made of protons, neutrons and electrons, etc. Even smaller than that are the quarks and the leptons, which seem to be the basic building blocks of all matter.
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Technicolor Auroras? A Reality Check

I shoot a lot of pictures of the northern lights. Just like the next photographer, I thrill to the striking colors that glow from the back of my digital camera. When preparing those images for publication, many of us lighten or brighten the images so the colors and forms stand out better. Nothing wrong with that, except most times the aurora never looked that way to our eyes.

Shocked? I took the photo above and using Photoshop adjusted color and brightness to match the naked eye view. Credit: Bob King
Surprised? I took the photo above and using Photoshop adjusted color and brightness to match the naked eye view. Notice the green tinge in the bright arc at bottom. The rays were colorless. Credit: Bob King

The colors you see in aurora photos ARE real but exaggerated because the pictures are time exposures. Once the camera’s shutter opens, light accumulates on the electronic sensor, making faint and pale subjects bright and vivid. The camera can’t help it, and who would deny a photographer the chance to share the beauty? Most of us understand the magic of time exposures and factor in a mental fudge factor when looking at astronomical photos including those of the aurora.

But photos can be misleading, especially so for beginners, who might anticipate “the second coming” when they step out to watch the northern lights only to feel disappointment at the real thing. Which is too bad, because the real aurora can make your jaw drop.

A massive wall of bright purple and green rays from July 20, 2012. Details: 16mm at f/2.8, ISO 800 and 20 second exposure. Credit: Bob King
A massive wall of bright purple and green rays from July 20, 2012. Details: 16mm at f/2.8, ISO 800 and 20 second exposure. Credit: Bob King

That’s why I thought it would instructive to take a few aurora photos and tone them down to what the eye normally sees.  Truth in advertising you know. I’ve also started to include disclaimers in my captions when the images show striking crimson rays. Veteran aurora watchers know that some of the most memorable auroral displays glow blood-red, but most of the ruddy hues recorded by the camera are simply invisible to the eye. Our eyes evolved their greatest sensitivity to green light, the slice of the rainbow spectrum in which the sun shines most intensely. We’re slightly less sensitive to yellow and only a 1/10 as sensitive to red.

Image adjusted to better represent the visual view. Credit: Bob King
Image adjusted to better represent the visual view. Most auroras are between 60 and 150 miles high, but occasionally reach to 400 miles. Credit: Bob King

A typical aurora begins life as a pale white band low in the northern sky. If we’re lucky, the band intensifies, crosses the color threshold and glows pale green. Deeper and brighter greens are also common in active and bright auroras, but red is elusive because are eyes are far less sensitive to it than green. Often a curtain of green rays will be topped off by red, blue or purple emission recorded with sumptuous fidelity in the camera. What does the eye see? Smoky, colorless haze with hints of pink. Maybe.

Again, this doesn’t mean we only see green and white. I’ve watched brilliant (pale) green rays stretch from horizon to zenith with their bottoms bathed in rosy-purple, a most wonderful sight. Another factor to keep in mind is dark adaption – the longer you’ve been out under a dark sky, the more sensitive your eyes will be to whatever color might be present. At night, however, we’re mostly color blind, relying on our low-light-sensitive rod cells to get around. Cone cells, fine-tuned for color vision, are activated only when light intensity reaches certain thresholds. That happens often when it comes to auroral green but less so with other colors to which our cells are less responsive.

Excitation of oxygen and nitrogen atoms and molecules by incoming solar electrons causes them to give off specific colors shown here. Credit: NCAR
Incoming auroral electrons excite oxygen and nitrogen atoms and molecules which then shoot out photons of light at specific wavelengths when they return to their ground states. Oxygen beams light at 557.7 (green) and 603 (red) nanometers. Credit: NCAR

Auroral colors originate when electrons from the sun spiral down Earth’s magnetic field lines like firemen on a firepole and slam into oxygen and nitrogen atoms in Earth’s upper atmosphere between 60 and 150 miles (96-240 km) high. Here’s a breakdown of color, atom and altitude:

* Green – oxygen atoms 60-93 miles up (100-150 km)
* Red – oxygen atoms from 93-155 miles (150-250 km)
* Purple – molecular nitrogen up to 60 miles (100 km)
* Blue/purple – molecular nitrogen ions above 100 miles (160 km)

When an electron strikes an oxygen atom for instance, it bumps one of the oxygen’s electrons to a higher energy level. When that electron drops back down to its previous rest or ground state, it emits a photon of green light. Billions of atoms and molecules, each cranking out tiny flashes of light, make an aurora. It takes about 3/4 second for that electron to drop and the atom to release a photon before it’s given another kick from a solar electron. Most auroras are rich with oxygen emission.

The layers of our atmosphere showing the altitude of the most common auroras. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The layers of our atmosphere showing the altitude of the most common auroras. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Higher up, where the air’s so thin it’s identical to a hard vacuum, collisions between atoms happen only about every 7 seconds. With lots of time on their hands, oxygen electrons can transition down to their lowest energy level inside the atom, releasing a photon of red light instead of green. That’s why tall rays often show red tops especially in time exposure photos.

Only during very active geomagnetic storms, when electrons penetrate to low levels in the atmosphere, are they able to excite molecules of nitrogen, giving rise to the familiar purple fringes at the bottoms of bright rays. Bombarded molecular nitrogen ions at high altitude release a deep blue-purple light. Rarely visible to the eye, I did record it one night in the camera.

A striking coronal aurora in Feb. 1999 photographed on film. The red in this aurora was obvious to the naked eye but appeared more like the Photoshopped version at right. Credit: Bob King
A striking coronal aurora in Feb. 1999 photographed on film. The red in this aurora was obvious to the naked eye but appeared more like the Photoshopped version at right. Credit: Bob King

While videos hint at how wildly dynamic auroras can be, they’re no substitute for seeing one yourself. That’s why I never seem to get to bed when that first tempting glow appears over the northern horizon. Colorful or colorless, you’ll be astonished at how the aurora constantly re-invents itself in a multitude of forms from arcs to rays to flaming patches and writhing curlicues. Don’t miss the chance to see one. If there’s one thing that looks absolutely unearthly on this green Earth, it’s the aurora borealis. Click HERE for a guide on when and where to watch for them.


Minute Physics: Real World Telekinesis

How do magnets affect things at a distance? How does the Sun heat our planet from 93 million miles away? How can we send messages across the world with our cell phones? We take these seemingly simple things for granted, but in fact there was a time not too long ago when the processes behind them were poorly understood, if at all… and, to the uninformed, there could seem to be a certain sense of “magic” about them.

This video from MinutePhysics, featuring director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics Neil Turok, illustrates how our understanding of electromagnetic fields was developed and why there’s nothing magic about it… except, perhaps, how they pack all that excellent info into 5 minutes. Enjoy!

Video: MinutePhysics (Created by Henry Reich.) In conjunction with The CBC Massey Lectures.

What Is An Electron

Faraday's Constant


What is an electron? Easily put, an electron is a subatomic particle that carries a negative electric charge. There are no known components, so it is believed to be an elementary particle(basic building block of the universe). The mass of an electron is 1/1836 of its proton. Electrons have an antiparticle called a positron. Positrons are identical to electrons except that all of its properties are the exact opposite. When electrons and positrons collide, they can be destroyed and will produce a pair (or more) of gamma ray photons. Electrons have gravitational, electromagnetic, and weak interactions.

In 1913, Niels Bohr postulated that electrons resided in quantized energy states, with the energy determined by the spin(angular momentum)of the electron’s orbits and that the electrons could move between these orbits by the emission or absorption of photons. These orbits explained the spectral lines of the hydrogen atom. The Bohr model failed to account for the relative intensities of the spectral lines and it was unsuccessful in explaining the spectra of more complex atom. Gilbert Lewis proposed in 1916 that a ‘covalent bond’ between two atoms is maintained by a pair of shared electrons. In 1919, Irving Langmuir improved on Lewis’ static model and suggested that all electrons were distributed in successive “concentric(nearly) spherical shells, all of equal thickness”. The shells were divided into a number of cells containing one pair of electrons. This model was able to qualitatively explain the chemical properties of all elements in the periodic table.

The invariant mass of an electron is 9.109×10-31 or 5.489×10-4 of the atomic mass unit. According to Einstein’s principle of mass-energy equivalence, this mass corresponds to a rest energy of .511MeV. Electrons have an electric charge of -1.602×10 coulomb. This a standard unit of charge for subatomic particles. The electron charge is identical to the charge of a proton. In addition to spin, the electron has an intrinsic magnetic moment along its spin axis. It is approximately equal to one Bohr magneton. The orientation of the spin with respect to the momentum of the electron defines the property of elementary particles known as helicity. Observing a single electron shows the upper limit of the particle’s radius is 10-22 meters. Some elementary particles decay into less massive particles. But an electron is thought to be stable on the grounds that it is the least massive particle with non-zero electric charge.

Understanding what is an electron is to begin to understand the basic building blocks of the universe. A very elementary understanding, but a building block to great scientific thought.

We have written many articles about the electron for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the Electron Cloud Model, and here’s an article about the charge of electron.

If you’d like more info on the Electron, check out the History of the Electron Page, and here’s a link to the article about Killer Electrons.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Composition of the Atom. Listen here, Episode 164: Inside the Atom.

What are Electrons

Fine Structure Constant


If you have heard of electrons you know that they have something to do with electricity and atoms. If so you are mostly right in describing what are electrons. Electrons are the subatomic particles that orbit the nucleus of an atom. They are generally negative in charge and are much smaller than the nucleus of the atom. If you wanted a proper size comparison the size of the earth in comparison to the sun would be a pretty close visualization.

Electrons are known to fall into orbits or energy levels. These orbits are not visible paths like the orbit of a planet or celestial body. The reason is that atoms are notoriously small and the best microscopes can only view so much of atoms at that scale. Even if we could view electrons they would move too fast for the human eye. As a matter of fact scientists still can’t calculate the exact position of electrons. They can only estimate their locations. That is why the modern model of the atoms has an electron cloud surrounding the nucleus of an atom instead of a defined system of electrons in concentric orbits.

Electrons are also important for the bonding of individual atoms together. With out this bonding force between atoms matter would not be able to interact in the many reactions and forms we see every day. This interaction between the outer electron layers of an atom is call atomic bonding. It can occur in two forms. One is covalent bonding where atoms share electrons in their outer orbits. The other is ionic bonding where an atom gives up electrons to another atom. In either case bonding must meet specific rules. We won’t go into great detail, but each electron orbit or electron energy level can only hold so many electrons. Atoms can only bond if there is room to share or receive extra electrons on the outermost orbit of the atom.

Electrons are also important to electricity. Electricity is basically the exchange of electrons in a stream called a current through a conducting medium. In most cases the medium is an acid, metal, or similar conductor. In the case of static electricity, a stream of electrons travels through the medium of air.

The understanding of the electron has allowed for a better understanding of some of the most important forces in our universe such as the electromagnetic force. Understanding its workings has allowed scientist to work out concepts such potential difference and the relationship between electrical and magnetic fields.

We have written many articles about electrons for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the atom diagram, and here’s an article about the electron cloud model.

If you’d like more info on Electrons, check out the Discussion about Electrons, and here’s a link to the History of the Electron Article.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Atom. Listen here, Episode 164: Inside the Atom.

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