In the course of conducting solar astronomy, scientists have noticed that periodically, the Sun’s tangled magnetic field lines will snap and then realign. This process is known as magnetic reconnection, where the magnetic topology of a body is rearrangedand magnetic energy is converted into kinetic energy, thermal energy, and particle acceleration.
However, while observing the Sun, a team of Indian astronomers recently witnessed something unprecedented – a magnetic reconnection that was triggered by a nearby eruption. This observation has confirmed a decade-old theory about magnetic reconnections and external drivers, and could also lead to a revolution in our understanding of space weather and controlled fusion and plasma experiments.
We here at Earth are fortunate that we have a viable atmosphere, one that is protected by Earth’s magnetosphere. Without this protective envelope, life on the surface would be bombarded by harmful radiation emanating from the Sun. However, Earth’s upper atmosphere is still slowly leaking, with about 90 tonnes of material a day escaping from the upper atmosphere and streaming into space.
And although astronomers have been investigating this leakage for some time, there are still many unanswered questions. For example, how much material is being lost to space, what kinds, and how does this interact with solar wind to influence our magnetic environment? Such has been the purpose of the European Space Agency’s Cluster project, a series of four identical spacecraft that have been measuring Earth’s magnetic environment for the past 15 years.
Understanding our atmosphere’s interaction with solar wind first requires that we understand how Earth’s magnetic field works. For starters, it extends from the interior of our planet (and is believed to be the result of a dynamo effect in the core), and reaches all the way out into space. This region of space, which our magnetic field exerts influence over, is known as the magnetosphere.
The inner portion of this magnetosphere is called the plasmasphere, a donut-shaped region which extends to a distance of about 20,000 km from the Earth and co-rotates with it. The magnetosphere is also flooded with charged particles and ions that get trapped inside, and then are sent bouncing back and forth along the region’s field lines.
At its forward, Sun-facing edge, the magnetosphere meets the solar wind – a stream of charged particles flowing from the Sun into space. The spot where they make contact is known as the “Bow Shock”, which is so-named because its magnetic field lines force solar wind to take on the shape of a bow as they pass over and around us.
As the solar wind passes over Earth’s magnetosphere, it comes together again behind our planet to form a magnetotail – an elongated tube which contains trapped sheets of plasma and interacting field lines. Without this protective envelope, Earth’s atmosphere would have been slowly stripped away billions of years ago, a fate that is now believed to have befallen Mars.
That being said, Earth’s magnetic field is not exactly hermetically sealed. For example, at our planet’s poles, the field lines are open, which allows solar particles to enter and fill our magnetosphere with energetic particles. This process is what is responsible for Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis (aka. the Northern and Southern Lights).
At the same time, particles from Earth’s upper atmosphere (the ionosphere) can escape the same way, traveling up through the poles and being lost to space. Despite learning much about Earth’s magnetic fields and how plasma is formed through its interaction with various particles, much about the whole process has been unclear until quite recently.
As Arnaud Masson, ESA’s Deputy Project Scientist for the Cluster mission stated in an ESA press release:
“The question of plasma transport and atmospheric loss is relevant for both planets and stars, and is an incredibly fascinating and important topic. Understanding how atmospheric matter escapes is crucial to understanding how life can develop on a planet. The interaction between incoming and outgoing material in Earth’s magnetosphere is a hot topic at the moment; where exactly is this stuff coming from? How did it enter our patch of space?“
Given that our atmosphere contains 5 quadrillion tons of matter (that’s 5 x 1015, or 5,000,000 billion tons), a loss of 90 tons a day doesn’t amount to much. However, this number does not include the mass of “cold ions” that are regularly being added. This term is typically used to described the hydrogen ions that we now know are being lost to the magnetosphere on a regular basis (along with oxygen and helium ions).
Since hydrogen requires less energy to escape our atmosphere, the ions that are created once this hydrogen becomes part of the plasmasphere also have low energy. As a result, they have been very difficult to detect in the past. What’s more, scientists have only known about this flow of oxygen, hydrogen and helium ions – which come from the Earth’s polar regions and replenish plasma in the magnetosphere – for a few decades.
Prior to this, scientists believed that solar particles alone were responsible for plasma in Earth’s magnetosphere. But in more recent years, they have come to understand that two other sources contribute to the plasmasphere. The first are sporadic “plumes” of plasma that grow within the plasmasphere and travel outwards towards the edge of the magnetosphere, where they interact with solar wind plasma coming the other way.
The other source? The aforementioned atmospheric leakage. Whereas this consists of abundant oxygen, helium and hydrogen ions, the cold hydrogen ions appear to play the most important role. Not only do they constitute a significant amount of matter lost to space, and may play a key role in shaping our magnetic environment. What’s more, most of the satellites currently orbiting Earth are unable to detect the cold ions being added to the mix, something which Cluster is able to do.
In 2009 and in 2013, the Cluster probes were able to characterize their strength, as well as that of other sources of plasma being added to the Earth’s magnetosphere. When only the cold ions are considered, the amount of atmosphere being lost o space amounts to several thousand tons per year. In short, its like losing socks. Not a big deal, but you’d like to know where they are going, right?
This has been another area of focus for the Cluster mission, which for the last decade and a half has been attempting to explore how these ions are lost, where they come from, and the like. As Philippe Escoubet, ESA’s Project Scientist for the Cluster mission, put it:
“In essence, we need to figure out how cold plasma ends up at the magnetopause. There are a few different aspects to this; we need to know the processes involved in transporting it there, how these processes depend on the dynamic solar wind and the conditions of the magnetosphere, and where plasma is coming from in the first place – does it originate in the ionosphere, the plasmasphere, or somewhere else?“
The reasons for understanding this are clear. High energy particles, usually in the form of solar flares, can pose a threat to space-based technology. In addition, understanding how our atmosphere interacts with solar wind is also useful when it comes to space exploration in general. Consider our current efforts to locate life beyond our own planet in the Solar System. If there is one thing that decades of missions to nearby planets has taught us, it is that a planet’s atmosphere and magnetic environment are crucial in determining habitability.
Within close proximity to Earth, there are two examples of this: Mars, which has a thin atmosphere and is too cold; and Venus, who’s atmosphere is too dense and far too hot. In the outer Solar System, Saturn’s moon Titan continues to intrigue us, mainly because of the unusual atmosphere. As the only body with a nitrogen-rich atmosphere besides Earth, it is also the only known planet where liquid transfer takes place between the surface and the atmosphere – albeit with petrochemicals instead of water.
Moreover, NASA’s Juno mission will spend the next two years exploring Jupiter’s own magnetic field and atmosphere. This information will tell us much about the Solar System’s largest planet, but it is also hoped to shed some light on the history planetary formation in the Solar System.
In the past fifteen years, Cluster has been able to tell astronomers a great deal about how Earth’s atmosphere interacts with solar wind, and has helped to explore magnetic field phenomena that we have only begun to understand. And while there is much more to be learned, scientists agree that what has been uncovered so far would have been impossible without a mission like Cluster.
Above is the latest rave-like video from NASA. While the images are reminiscent of what could play during an awesome Friday night party, what you’re actually seeing is a timelapse of auroras on Saturn. These pictures are pretty to look at, but they also tell us more about how the sun’s belches of stuff influence the magnetic field around the ringed gas giant.
“Saturn’s auroras can be fickle — you may see fireworks, you may see nothing,” stated Jonathan Nichols of the University of Leicester in England, who led the work on the Hubble Space Telescope images shown in the video. “In 2013, we were treated to a veritable smorgasbord of dancing auroras, from steadily shining rings to super-fast bursts of light shooting across the pole.”
The light show was captured by both the Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft and the Earth-orbiting Hubble. Cassini managed to nab its images from three Saturn distances away (which is apparently an unusually close vantage point.) This location “provided a look at the changing patterns of faint emissions on scales of a few hundred miles (kilometers) and tied the changes in the auroras to the fluctuating wind of charged particles blowing off the sun and flowing past Saturn,” NASA stated.
Here are a few things scientists are learning (or hoping to learn soon) from the light show:
How auroras are formed. The Cassini images suggest that as magnetic field lines forge new links, this is where the storms are centered. This process happens on Earth, so it would make sense for it to happen elsewhere. Researchers also found that some of the auroras stick close to the orbital position of Mimas, suggesting that the moon may be influencing some of the storms (a process already known to happen with Enceladus).
The nature of Saturn’s atmosphere. While the answers are still forthcoming, scientists are examining why the top of Saturn’s atmosphere (and other gas giants) are warmer than would be expected given how far they are from the sun. “By looking at these long sequences of images taken by different instruments, we can discover where the aurora heats the atmosphere as the particles dive into it and how long the cooking occurs,” stated Sarah Badman, a Cassini visual and infrared mapping spectrometer team associate at Lancaster University, England.
What color the auroras are. Red on the bottom, and purple on the top, depending on how Saturn’s hydrogen is excited and what light it emits. (For reference, Earth’s is green on bottom and red at top due to excitement of nitrogen and oxygen).
Where charged particles around Saturn go. More data from the W.M. Keck Observatory and NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility (both in Hawaii) could show “how particles are ionized in Saturn’s upper atmosphere,” NASA stated. Better yet, scientists can compare that information to the stuff gathered from outside of Earth’s atmosphere by Hubble and Cassini. This will allow them to see what distortions the ground-based observatories experienced due to Earth’s atmosphere, and improve the accuracy of the observations.
Not bad work for a single music video, isn’t it? For more information on auroras on Saturn, check out these past Universe Today stories: