Friday, February 18, 2011

Catching Space Weather in the Act

Close to the globe, Earth's magnetic field wraps around the planet like a gigantic spherical web, curving in to touch Earth at the poles. But this isn't true as you get further from the planet. As you move to the high altitudes where satellites fly, nothing about that field is so simple. Instead, the large region enclosed by Earth's magnetic field, known as the magnetosphere, looks like a long, sideways jellyfish with its round bulb facing the sun and a long tail extending away from the sun.

In the center of that magnetic tail lies the plasma sheet. Here, strange things can happen. Magnetic field lines pull apart and come back together, creating explosions when they release energy. Disconnected bits of the tail called "plasmoids" get ejected into space at two million miles per hour. And legions of charged particles flow back toward Earth.

Such space weather events cause auroras and, when very strong, can produce radiation events that could cause our satellites to fail. But until now no one has been able to take pictures of these fascinating processes in the plasma sheet.

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