December 08, 2003
The cracks were detected before but researchers now know they can remain open for long periods, rather than opening and closing for just very brief intervals. This new discovery about how the Earth's magnetic shield is breached is expected to help space physicists give better estimates of the effects of severe space weather.
"We discovered that our magnetic shield is drafty, like a house with a window stuck open during a storm," said Dr. Harald Frey of the University of California, Berkeley, lead author of a paper on this research published Dec. 4 in Nature. "The house deflects most of the storm, but the couch is ruined. Similarly, our magnetic shield takes the brunt of space storms, but some energy continually slips through its cracks, sometimes enough to cause problems with satellites, radio communication, and power systems."
"The new knowledge that the cracks are open for long periods, instead of opening and closing sporadically, can be incorporated into our space weather forecasting computer models to more accurately predict how our space weather is influenced by violent events on the Sun," said Dr. Tai Phan, also of UC Berkeley, co-author of the Nature paper.
The solar wind is a stream of electrically charged particles (electrons and ions) blown constantly from the Sun. The solar wind transfers energy from the Sun to the Earth through the magnetic fields it carries and its high speed (hundreds of miles/kilometers per second). It can get gusty during violent solar events, like Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs), which can shoot a billion tons of electrified gas into space at millions of miles per hour.
Earth has a magnetic field that extends into space for tens of thousands of miles, surrounding the planet and forming a protective barrier to the particles and snarled magnetic fields the Sun blasts toward it during CMEs. However, space storms, which can dump 1,000 billion watts -- more than America's total electric generating capacity -- into the Earth's magnetic field, indicated that the shield was not impenetrable.
In 1961, Dr. Jim Dungey of the Imperial College, United Kingdom, predicted that cracks might form in the magnetic shield when the solar wind contained a magnetic field that was oriented in the opposite direction to a portion of the Earth's field. In these regions, the two magnetic fields would interconnect through a process known as "magnetic reconnection," forming a crack in the shield through which the electrically charged particles of the solar wind could flow. In 1979, Dr. Goetz Paschmann, of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Germany, detected the cracks using the International Sun Earth Explorer (ISEE) spacecraft. However, since this spacecraft only briefly passed through the cracks during its orbit, it was unknown if the cracks were temporary features or if they were stable for long periods.
IMAGE is a NASA satellite launched
March 25, 2000 to provide a global view of the space around Earth
influenced by the Earth's magnetic field. The Cluster satellites,
built by the European Space Agency and launched July 16, 2000,
are making a three-dimensional map of the Earth's magnetic field.
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