NASA Scientists Are Scratching Their Heads Over This New Magnetic Mystery Swirling Through Earth's Violent Outer Atmosphere

Friday, 11 May 2018 - 12:42PM
Earth
Physics
Friday, 11 May 2018 - 12:42PM
NASA Scientists Are Scratching Their Heads Over This New Magnetic Mystery Swirling Through Earth's Violent Outer Atmosphere
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NASA Goddard
A newly-discovered phenomenon in Earth's outer atmosphere finally explains what happens to all that energy from pummeling solar winds. Our planet's magnetic field weathers massive batterings daily, creating giant magnetic shockwaves as all the charged particles from the solar wind hit it. But if energy can be neither created nor destroyed, where does it all go? A new type of magnetic reconnection is at work.

Here's the short version of what that means: the universe is filled with plasma, a type of charged gas. In fact, 99% of the observable universe is made of plasma – it composes the bulk of most stars and even flows between Jupiter and its moon, Io. Plasma has its own unique magnetic properties and, since it's really just a bunch of particles, magnetic forces have a huge impact on plasma's behavior. Magnetic reconnection is one of these forces, and it's a doozy. Here's NASA's description of the process:

Opening quote
"Under normal conditions, the magnetic field lines inside plasmas don't break or merge with other field lines. But sometimes, as field lines get close to each other, the entire pattern changes and everything realigns into a new configuration. The amount of energy released can be formidable. Magnetic reconnection taps into the stored energy of the magnetic field, converting it into heat and kinetic energy that sends particles streaming out along the field lines."
Closing quote


By "formidable," they mean "potentially cataclysmic." The amount of energy released from magnetic reconnections on the Sun in 2003 triggered huge coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which blew billions of tons of matter into space at a rate of millions of miles per hour. The Earth's outer atmosphere also contains plasma, though not nearly as much as the Sun. Still, our plasma is doing a lot of work – and it may be taking care of all the excess energy created when solar wind hits our magnetic field. According to Michael Shay, from the University of Delaware: "We now have evidence that reconnection does happen to dissipate turbulent energy in the magnetosheath, but it is a new kind of reconnection."

If you want to learn more about the weird world of Earth's magnetism, check out the South Atlantic Anomaly.

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