At present, scientists can only look for planets beyond our Solar System using indirect means. Depending on the method, this will involve looking for signs of transits in front of a star (Transit Photometry), measuring a star for signs of wobble (Doppler Spectroscopy), looking for light reflected from a planet’s atmosphere (Direct Imaging), and a slew of other methods.
Based on certain parameters, astronomers are then able to determine whether a planet is potentially-habitable or not. However, a team of astronomers from the Netherlands recently released a study in which they describe a novel approach for exoplanet-hunting: looking for signs of aurorae. As these are the result of interaction between a planet’s magnetic field and a star, this method could be a shortcut to finding life!
For decades, scientists have held that the Earth-Moon system formed as a result of a collision between Earth and a Mars-sized object roughly 4.5 billion years ago. Known as the Giant Impact Hypothesis, this theory explains why Earth and the Moon are similar in structure and composition. Interestingly enough, scientists have also determined that during its early history, the Moon had a magnetosphere – much like Earth does today.
However, a new study led by researchers at MIT (with support provided by NASA) indicates that at one time, the Moon’s magnetic field may have actually been stronger than Earth’s. They were also able to place tighter constraints on when this field petered out, claiming it would have happened about 1 billion years ago. These findings have helped resolve the mystery of what mechanism powered the Moon’s magnetic field over time.
Space is a hostile environment in so many ways. But one of its worst features is the various kinds of radiation you can find. When astronauts go back beyond the protective environment of the Earth’s magnetosphere, what are the various kinds of radiation they’ll encounter. And is there anything we’ll be able to do about it?
It’s easy to imagine the excitement NASA personnel must have felt when an amateur astronomer contacted NASA to tell them that he might have found their missing IMAGE satellite. After all, the satellite had been missing for 10 years.
IMAGE, which stands for Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration, was launched on March 25th, 2000. In Dec. 2005 the satellite failed to make routine contact, and in 2007 it failed to reboot. After that, the mission was declared over.
It’s astonishing that after 10 years, the satellite has been found. It’s even more astonishing that it was an amateur who found it. As if the story couldn’t get any more interesting, the amateur astronomer who found it—Scott Tilly of British Columbia, Canada—was actually looking for a different missing satellite: the secret ZUMA spy satellite launched by the US government on January 7, 2018. (If you’re prone to wearing a tin foil hat, now might be a good time to reach for one.)
After Tilly contacted NASA, they hurried to confirm that it was indeed IMAGE that had been found. To do that, NASA employed 5 separate antennae to seek out any radio signals from the satellite. As of Monday, Jan. 29, signals received from all five sites were consistent with the radio frequency characteristics expected of IMAGE.
In a press release, NASA said, “Specifically, the radio frequency showed a spike at the expected center frequency, as well as side bands where they should be for IMAGE. Oscillation of the signal was also consistent with the last known spin rate for IMAGE.”
“…the radio frequency showed a spike at the expected center frequency…” – NASA Press Release confirming the discovery of IMAGE
Then, on January 30, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (JHUAPL) reported that they had successfully collected telemetry data from the satellite. In that signal was the ID code 166, the code for IMAGE. There were probably some pretty happy people at NASA.
So, now what?
NASA’s next step is to confirm without a doubt that this is indeed IMAGE. That means capturing and analyzing the data in the signal. That will be a technical challenge, because the types of hardware and operating systems used in the IMAGE Mission Operations Center no longer exist. According to NASA, “other systems have been updated several versions beyond what they were at the time, requiring significant reverse-engineering.” But that should be no problem for NASA. After all, they got Apollo 13 home safely, didn’t they?
If NASA is successful at decoding the data in the signal, the next step is to attempt to turn on IMAGE’s science payload. NASA has yet to decide how to proceed if they’re successful.
IMAGE was the first spacecraft designed to “see the invisible,” as they put it back then. Prior to IMAGE, spacecraft examined Earth’s magnetosphere by detecting particles and fields they encountered as they passed through them. But this method had limited success. The magnetosphere is enormous, and simply sampling a small path—while better than nothing—did not give us an accurate understanding of it.
IMAGE was going to do things differently. It used 3-dimensional imaging techniques to measure simultaneously the densities, energies and masses of charged particles throughout the inner magnetosphere. To do this, IMAGE carried a payload of 7 instruments:
High Energy Neutral Atom (HENA) imager
Medium Energy Neutral Atom (MENA) imager
Low Energy Neutral Atom (LENA) imager
Extreme Ultraviolet (EUV) imager
Far Ultraviolet (FUV) imager
Radio Plasma Imager (RPI)
Central Instrument Data Processor (CIDP)
These instruments allowed IMAGE to not only do great science, and to capture great images, but also to create some stunning never-seen-before movies of auroral activity.
This is a fascinating story, and it’ll be interesting to see if NASA can establish meaningful contact with IMAGE. Will it have a treasure trove of unexplored data on-board? Can it be re-booted and brought back into service? We’ll have to wait and see.
This story is also interesting culturally. IMAGE was in service at a time when the internet wasn’t as refined as it is currently. NASA has mastered the internet and public communications now, but back then? Not so much. For example, to build up interest around the mission, NASA gave IMAGE its own theme song, titled “To See The Invisible.” Yes, seriously.
But that’s just a side-note. IMAGE was all about great science, and it accomplished a lot. You can read all about IMAGE’s science achievements here.
For many reasons, Venus is sometimes referred to as “Earth’s Twin” (or “Sister Planet”, depending on who you ask). Like Earth, it is terrestrial (i.e. rocky) in nature, composed of silicate minerals and metals that are differentiated between an iron-nickel core and silicate mantle and crust. But when it comes to their respective atmospheres and magnetic fields, our two planets could not be more different.
For some time, astronomers have struggled to answer why Earth has a magnetic field (which allows it to retain a thick atmosphere) and Venus do not. According to a new study conducted by an international team of scientists, it may have something to do with a massive impact that occurred in the past. Since Venus appears to have never suffered such an impact, its never developed the dynamo needed to generate a magnetic field.
The study, titled “Formation, stratification, and mixing of the cores of Earth and Venus“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Earth and Science Planetary Letters. The study was led by Seth A. Jacobson of Northwestern University, and included members from the Observatory de la Côte d’Azur, the University of Bayreuth, the Tokyo Institute of Technology, and the Carnegie Institution of Washington.
For the sake of their study, Jacobson and his colleagues began considering how terrestrial planets form in the first place. According to the most widely-accepted models of planet formation, terrestrial planets are not formed in a single stage, but from a series of accretion events characterized by collisions with planetesimals and planetary embryos – most of which have cores of their own.
Recent studies on high-pressure mineral physics and on orbital dynamics have also indicated that planetary cores develop a stratified structure as they accrete. The reason for this has to do with how a higher abundance of light elements are incorporated in with liquid metal during the process, which would then sink to form the core of the planet as temperatures and pressure increased.
Such a stratified core would be incapable of convection, which is believed to be what allows for Earth’s magnetic field. What’s more, such models are incompatible with seismological studies that indicate that Earth’s core consists mostly of iron and nickel, while approximately 10% of its weight is made up of light elements – such as silicon, oxygen, sulfur, and others. It’s outer core is similarly homogeneous, and composed of much the same elements.
As Dr. Jacobson explained to Universe Today via email:
“The terrestrial planets grew from a sequence of accretionary (impact) events, so the core also grew in a multi-stage fashion. Multi-stage core formation creates a layered stably stratified density structure in the core because light elements are increasingly incorporated in later core additions. Light elements like O, Si, and S increasingly partition into core forming liquids during core formation when pressures and temperatures are higher, so later core forming events incorporate more of these elements into the core because the Earth is bigger and pressures and temperatures are therefore higher.
“This establishes a stable stratification which prevents a long-lasting geodynamo and a planetary magnetic field. This is our hypothesis for Venus. In the case of Earth, we think the Moon-forming impact was violent enough to mechanically mix the core of the Earth and allow a long-lasting geodynamo to generate today’s planetary magnetic field.”
To add to this state of confusion, paleomagnetic studies have been conducted that indicate that Earth’s magnetic field has existed for at least 4.2 billion years (roughly 340 million years after it formed). As such, the question naturally arises as to what could account for the current state of convection and how it came about. For the sake of their study, Jacobson and his team considering the possibility that a massive impact could account for this. As Jacobson indicated:
“Energetic impacts mechanically mix the core and so can destroy stable stratification. Stable stratification prevents convection which inhibits a geodynamo. Removing the stratification allows the dynamo to operate.”
Basically, the energy of this impact would have shaken up the core, creating a single homogeneous region within which a long-lasting geodynamo could operate. Given the age of Earth’s magnetic field, this is consistent with the Theia impact theory, where a Mars-sized object is believed to have collided with Earth 4.51 billion years ago and led to the formation of the Earth-Moon system.
This impact could have caused Earth’s core to go from being stratified to homogeneous, and over the course of the next 300 million years, pressure and temperature conditions could have caused it to differentiate between a solid inner core and liquid outer core. Thanks to rotation in the outer core, the result was a dynamo effect that protected our atmosphere as it formed.
The seeds of this theory were presented last year at the 47th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas. During a presentation titled “Dynamical Mixing of Planetary Cores by Giant Impacts“, Dr. Miki Nakajima of Caltech – one of the co-authors on this latest study – and David J. Stevenson of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. At the time, they indicated that the stratification of Earth’s core may have been reset by the same impact that formed the Moon.
It was Nakajima and Stevenson’s study that showed how the most violent impacts could stir the core of planets late in their accretion. Building on this, Jacobson and the other co-authors applied models of how Earth and Venus accreted from a disk of solids and gas about a proto-Sun. They also applied calculations of how Earth and Venus grew, based on the chemistry of the mantle and core of each planet through each accretion event.
The significance of this study, in terms of how it relates to the evolution of Earth and the emergence of life, cannot be understated. If Earth’s magnetosphere is the result of a late energetic impact, then such impacts could very well be the difference between our planet being habitable or being either too cold and arid (like Mars) or too hot and hellish (like Venus). As Jacobson concluded:
“Planetary magnetic fields shield planets and life on the planet from harmful cosmic radiation. If a late, violent and giant impact is necessary for a planetary magnetic field then such an impact may be necessary for life.”
Looking beyond our Solar System, this paper also has implications in the study of extra-solar planets. Here too, the difference between a planet being habitable or not may come down to high-energy impacts being a part of the system’s early history. In the future, when studying extra-solar planets and looking for signs of habitability, scientists may very well be forced to ask one simple question: “Was it hit hard enough?”
Human beings have known for quite some time that our behavior has a significant influence on our planet. In fact, during the 20th century, humanity’s impact on the natural environment and climate has become so profound that some geologists began to refer to the modern era as the “Anthropocene”. In this age, human agency is the most deterministic force on the planet.
But according to a comprehensive new study by an Anglo-American team of researchers, human beings might be shaping the near-space environment as well. According to the study, radio communications, EM radiation from nuclear testing and other human actions have led to the creation of a barrier around Earth that is shielding it against high-energy space radiation.
The study, which was published in the journal Space Science Reviews under the title “Anthropogenic Space Weather“, was conducted by a team of scientists from the US and Imperial College, London. Led by Dr. Tamas Gombosi, a professor at the University of Michigan and the director at the Center for Space Modelling, the team reviewed the impact anthropogenic processes have on Earth’s near-space environment.
These processes include VLF and radio-frequency (RF) radio communications, which began in earnest during the 19th century and grew considerably during the 20th century. Things became more intense during the 1960s when the United States and the Soviet Union began conducting high-altitude nuclear tests, which resulted in massive electromagnetic pulses (EMP) in Earth’s atmosphere.
To top it off, the creation of large-scale power grids has also had an impact on the near-space environment. As they state in their study:
“The permanent existence, and growth, of power grids and of VLF transmitters around the globe means that it is unlikely that Earth’s present-day space environment is entirely “natural” – that is, that the environment today is the environment that existed at the onset of the 19th century. This can be concluded even though there continue to exist major uncertainties as to the nature of the physical processes that operate under the influence of both the natural environment and the anthropogenically-produced waves.”
The existence of radiation belts (or “toroids”) around Earth has been a well-known fact since the late 1950s. These belts were found to be the result of charged particles coming from the Sun (i.e. “solar wind”) that were captured by and held around Earth by it’s magnetic field. They were named Van Allen Radiation Belts after their discover, the American space scientist James Van Allen.
The extent of these belts, their energy distribution and particle makeup has been the subject of multiple space missions since then. Similarly, studies began to be mounted around the same time to discover how human-generated charged particles, which would interact with Earth’s magnetic fields once they reached near-space, could contribute to artificial radiation belts.
However, it has been with the deployment of orbital missions like the Van Allen Probes (formerly the Radiation Belt Storm Probes) that scientists have been truly able to study these belts. In addition to the aforementioned Van Allen Belts, they have also taken note of the VLF bubble that radio transmissions have surrounded Earth with. As Phil Erickson, the assistant director at the MIT Haystack Observatory, said in a NASA press release:
“A number of experiments and observations have figured out that, under the right conditions, radio communications signals in the VLF frequency range can in fact affect the properties of the high-energy radiation environment around the Earth.”
One thing that the probes have noticed was the interesting way that the outward extent of the VLF bubble corresponds almost exactly to the inner and outer Van Allen radiation belts. What’s more, comparisons between the modern extent of the radiations belts from the Van Allen Probe data shows that the inner boundary is much farther away than it appeared to be during the 1960s (when VLF transmissions were lower).
What this could mean is that the VLF bubble we humans have been creating for over a century and half has been removing excess radiation from the near-Earth environment. This could be good news for us, since the effects of charged particles on electronics and human health is well-documented. And during periods of intense space weather – aka. solar flares – the effects can be downright devastating.
Given the opportunity for further study, we may find ways to predictably and reliably use VLF transmissions to make the near-Earth environment more human and electronics-friendly. And with companies like SpaceX planning on bringing internet access to the world through broadband internet-providing satellites, and even larger plans for the commercialization of Near-Earth Orbit, anything that can mitigate the risk posed by radiation is welcome.
And be sure to check this video that illustrates the Van Allen Probes findings, courtesy of NASA:
In the past few decades, astronomers and geophysicists have benefited immensely from the study of planetary magnetic fields. Dedicated to mapping patterns of magnetism on other astronomical bodies, this field has grown thanks to missions ranging from the Voyager probes to the more recent Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission.
Looking ahead, it is clear that this field of study will play a vital role in the exploration of the Solar System and beyond. As Jared Espley of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center outlined during a presentation at NASA’s Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop, these goals include advancing human exploration of the cosmos and the search for extraterrestrial life.
This week, NASA’s Planetary Science Division (PSD) hosted a community workshop at their headquarters in Washington, DC. Known as the “Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop“, this event ran from February 27th to March 1st, and saw scientists and researchers from all over the world descend on the capitol to attend panel discussions, presentations, and talks about the future of space exploration.
One of the more intriguing presentations took place on Wednesday, March 1st, where the exploration of Mars by human astronauts was discussed. In the course of the talk, which was titled “A Future Mars Environment for Science and Exploration“, Director Jim Green discussed how deploying a magnetic shield could enhance Mars’ atmosphere and facilitate crewed missions there in the future.
The current scientific consensus is that, like Earth, Mars once had a magnetic field that protected its atmosphere. Roughly 4.2 billion years ago, this planet’s magnetic field suddenly disappeared, which caused Mars’ atmosphere to slowly be lost to space. Over the course of the next 500 million years, Mars went from being a warmer, wetter environment to the cold, uninhabitable place we know today.
This theory has been confirmed in recent years by orbiters like the ESA’s Mars Express and NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN Mission (MAVEN), which have been studying the Martian atmosphere since 2004 and 2014, respectively. In addition to determining that solar wind was responsible for depleting Mars’ atmosphere, these probes have also been measuring the rate at which it is still being lost today.
Without this atmosphere, Mars will continue to be a cold, dry place where life cannot flourish. In addition to that, future crewed mission – which NASA hopes to mount by the 2030s – will also have to deal with some severe hazards. Foremost among these will be exposure to radiation and the danger of asphyxiation, which will pose an even greater danger to colonists (should any attempts at colonization be made).
In answer to this challenge, Dr. Jim Green – the Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division – and a panel of researchers presented an ambitious idea. In essence, they suggested that by positioning a magnetic dipole shield at the Mars L1 Lagrange Point, an artificial magnetosphere could be formed that would encompass the entire planet, thus shielding it from solar wind and radiation.
Naturally, Green and his colleagues acknowledged that the idea might sounds a bit “fanciful”. However, they were quick to emphasize how new research into miniature magnetospheres (for the sake of protecting crews and spacecraft) supports this concept:
“This new research is coming about due to the application of full plasma physics codes and laboratory experiments. In the future it is quite possible that an inflatable structure(s) can generate a magnetic dipole field at a level of perhaps 1 or 2 Tesla (or 10,000 to 20,000 Gauss) as an active shield against the solar wind.”
In addition, the positioning of this magnetic shield would ensure that the two regions where most of Mars’ atmosphere is lost would be shielded. In the course of the presentation, Green and the panel indicated that these the major escape channels are located, “over the northern polar cap involving higher energy ionospheric material, and 2) in the equatorial zone involving a seasonal low energy component with as much as 0.1 kg/s escape of oxygen ions.”
To test this idea, the research team – which included scientists from Ames Research Center, the Goddard Space Flight Center, the University of Colorado, Princeton University, and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory – conducted a series of simulations using their proposed artificial magnetosphere. These were run at the Coordinated Community Modeling Center (CCMC), which specializes in space weather research, to see what the net effect would be.
What they found was that a dipole field positioned at Mars L1 Lagrange Point would be able to counteract solar wind, such that Mars’ atmosphere would achieve a new balance. At present, atmospheric loss on Mars is balanced to some degree by volcanic outpassing from Mars interior and crust. This contributes to a surface atmosphere that is about 6 mbar in air pressure (less than 1% that at sea level on Earth).
As a result, Mars atmosphere would naturally thicken over time, which lead to many new possibilities for human exploration and colonization. According to Green and his colleagues, these would include an average increase of about 4 °C (~7 °F), which would be enough to melt the carbon dioxide ice in the northern polar ice cap. This would trigger a greenhouse effect, warming the atmosphere further and causing the water ice in the polar caps to melt.
By their calculations, Green and his colleagues estimated that this could lead to 1/7th of Mars’ oceans – the ones that covered it billions of years ago – to be restored. If this is beginning to sound a bit like a lecture on how to terraform Mars, it is probably because these same ideas have been raised by people who advocating that very thing. But in the meantime, these changes would facilitate human exploration between now and mid-century.
“A greatly enhanced Martian atmosphere, in both pressure and temperature, that would be enough to allow significant surface liquid water would also have a number of benefits for science and human exploration in the 2040s and beyond,” said Green. “Much like Earth, an enhanced atmosphere would: allow larger landed mass of equipment to the surface, shield against most cosmic and solar particle radiation, extend the ability for oxygen extraction, and provide “open air” greenhouses to exist for plant production, just to name a few.”
These conditions, said Green and his colleagues, would also allow for human explorers to study the planet in much greater detail. It would also help them to determine the habitability of the planet, since many of the signs that pointed towards it being habitable in the past (i.e. liquid water) would slowly seep back into the landscape. And if this could be achieved within the space of few decades, it would certainly help pave the way for colonization.
In the meantime, Green and his colleagues plan to review the results of these simulations so they can produce a more accurate assessment of how long these projected changes would take. It also might not hurt to conduct some cost-assessments of this magnetic shield. While it might seem like something out of science fiction, it doesn’t hurt to crunch the numbers!
Stay tuned for more stories from the Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop!
Whether or not a planet has a magnetic field goes a long way towards determining whether or not it is habitable. Whereas Earth has a strong magnetosphere that protects life from harmful radiation and keeps solar wind from stripping away its atmosphere, planet’s like Mars no longer do. Hence why it went from being a world with a thicker atmosphere and liquid water on its surface to the cold, desiccated place it is today.
For this reason, scientists have long sought to understand what powers Earth’s magnetic field. Until now, the consensus has been that it was the dynamo effect created by Earth’s liquid outer core spinning in the opposite direction of Earth’s rotation. However, new research from the Tokyo Institute of Technology suggests that it may actually be due to the presence of crystallization in the Earth’s core.
Of particular concern for the research team was the rate of which Earth’s core cools over geological time – which has been the subject of debate for some time. And for Dr. Kei Hirose – the director of the Earth-Life Science Institute and lead author on the paper – it has been something of a lifelong pursuit. In a 2013 study, he shared research findings that indicated how the Earth’s core may have cooled more significantly than previously thought.
He and his team concluded that since the Earth’s formation (4.5 billion years ago), the core may have cooled by as much as 1,000 °C (1,832 °F). These findings were rather surprising to the Earth sciences community – leading to what one scientists referred to as the “New Core Heat Paradox“. In short, this rate of core cooling would mean that some other source of energy would be required to sustain the Earth’s geomagnetic field.
On top of this, and related to the issue of core-cooling, were some unresolved questions about the chemical composition of the core. As Dr. Kei Hirose said in a Tokyo Tech press release:
“The core is mostly iron and some nickel, but also contains about 10% of light alloys such as silicon, oxygen, sulfur, carbon, hydrogen, and other compounds. We think that many alloys are simultaneously present, but we don’t know the proportion of each candidate element.”
In order to resolve this, Hirose and his colleagues at ELSI conducted a series of experiments where various alloys were subjected to heat and pressure conditions similar to that in the Earth’s interior. This consisted of using a diamond anvil to squeeze dust-sized alloy samples to simulate high pressure conditions, and then heating them with a laser beam until they reached extreme temperatures.
In the past, research into iron alloys in the core have focused predominantly on either iron-silicon alloys or iron-oxide at high pressures. But for the sake of their experiments, Hirose and his colleagues decided to focus on the combination of silicon and oxygen – which are believed to exist in the outer core – and examining the results with an electron microscope.
What the researchers found was that under conditions of extreme pressure and heat, samples of silicon and oxygen combined to form silicon dioxide crystals – which were similar in composition to mineral quartz found in the Earth’s crust. Ergo, the study showed that the crystallization of silicon dioxide in the outer core would have released enough buoyancy to power core convection and a dynamo effect from as early on as the Hadean eon onward.
As John Hernlund, also a member of ELSI and a co-author of the study, explained:
“This result proved important for understanding the energetics and evolution of the core. We were excited because our calculations showed that crystallization of silicon dioxide crystals from the core could provide an immense new energy source for powering the Earth’s magnetic field.”
This study not only provides evidence to help resolve the so-called “New Core Heat Paradox”, it also may help advance our understanding of what conditions were like during the formation of Earth and the early Solar System. Basically, if silicon and oxygen form crystal of silicon dioxide in the outer core over time, then sooner or later, the process will stop once the core runs out of these elements.
When that happens, we can expect Earth’s magnetic field will suffer, which will have drastic implications for life on Earth. It also helps to put constraints on the concentrations of silicon and oxygen that were present in the core when the Earth first formed, which could go a long way towards informing our theories about Solar System formation.
What’s more, this research may help geophysicists to determine how and when other planets (like Mars, Venus and Mercury) still had magnetic fields (and possibly lead to ideas of how they could be powered up again). It could even help exoplanet-hunting science teams determine which exoplanets have magnetospheres, which would allow us to find out which extra-solar worlds could be habitable.
Jupiter may be the largest planet in the Solar System with a diameter 11 times that of Earth, but it pales in comparison to its own magnetosphere. The planet’s magnetic domain extends sunward at least 3 million miles (5 million km) and on the back side all the way to Saturn for a total of 407 million miles or more than 400 times the size of the Sun.
If we had eyes adapted to see the Jovian magnetosphere at night, its teardrop-like shape would easily extend across several degrees of sky! No surprise then that Jove’s magnetic aura has been called one of the largest structures in the Solar System.
Io, Jupiter’s innermost of the planet’s four large moons, orbits deep within this giant bubble. Despite its small size — about 200 miles smaller than our own Moon — it doesn’t lack in superlatives. With an estimated 400 volcanoes, many of them still active, Io is the most volcanically active body in the Solar System. In the moon’s low gravity, volcanoes spew sulfur, sulfur dioxide gas and fragments of basaltic rock up to 310 miles (500 km) into space in beautiful, umbrella-shaped plumes.
Once aloft, electrons whipped around by Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field strike the neutral gases and ionize them (strips off their electrons). Ionized atoms and molecules (ions) are no longer neutral but possess a positive or negative electric charge. Astronomers refer to swarms of ionized atoms as plasma.
Jupiter rotates rapidly, spinning once every 9.8 hours, dragging the whole magnetosphere with it. As it spins past Io, those volcanic ions get caught up and dragged along for the ride, rotating around the planet in a ring called the Io plasma torus. You can picture it as a giant donut with Jupiter in the “hole” and the tasty, ~8,000-mile-thick ring centered on Io’s orbit.
That’s not all. Jupiter’s magnetic field also couples Io’s atmosphere to the planet’s polar regions, pumping Ionian ions through two “pipelines” to the magnetic poles and generating a powerful electric current known as the Io flux tube. Like firefighters on fire poles, the ions follow the planet’s magnetic field lines into the upper atmosphere, where they strike and excite atoms, spawning an ultraviolet-bright patch of aurora within the planet’s overall aurora. Astronomers call it Io’s magnetic footprint. The process works in reverse, too, spawning auroras in Io’s tenuous atmosphere.
Io is the main supplier of particles to Jupiter’s magnetosphere. Some of the same electrons stripped from sulfur and oxygen atoms during an earlier eruption return to strike atoms shot out by later blasts. Round and round they go in a great cycle of microscopic bombardment! The constant flow of high-speed, charged particles in Io’s vicinity make the region a lethal environment not only for humans but also for spacecraft electronics, the reason NASA’s Juno probe gets the heck outta there after each perijove or closest approach to Jupiter.
But there’s much to glean from those plasma streams. Astronomy PhD student Phillip Phipps and assistant professor of astronomy Paul Withers of Boston University have hatched a plan to use the Juno spacecraft to probe Io’s plasma torus to indirectly study the timing and flow of material from Io’s volcanoes into Jupiter’s magnetosphere. In a paper published on Jan. 25, they propose using changes in the radio signal sent by Juno as it passes through different regions of the torus to measure how much stuff is there and how its density changes over time.
The technique is called a radio occultation. Radio waves are a form of light just like white light. And like white light, they get bent or refracted when passing through a medium like air (or plasma in the case of Io). Blue light is slowed more and experiences the most bending; red light is slowed less and refracted least, the reason red fringes a rainbow’s outer edge and blue its inner. In radio occultations, refraction results in changes in frequency caused by variations in the density of plasma in Io’s torus.
The best spacecraft for the attempt is one with a polar orbit around Jupiter, where it cuts a clean cross-section through different parts of the torus during each orbit. Guess what? With its polar orbit, Juno’s the probe for the job! Its main mission is to map Jupiter’s gravitational and magnetic fields, so an occultation experiment jives well with mission goals. Previous missions have netted just two radio occultations of the torus, but Juno could potentially slam dunk 24.
Because the paper was intended to show that the method is a feasible one, it remains to be seen whether NASA will consider adding a little extra credit work to Juno’s homework. It seems a worthy and practical goal, one that will further enlighten our understanding of how volcanoes create aurorae in the bizarre electric and magnetic environment of the largest planet.