Scientists working with NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale spacecraft (MMS) have uncovered a new type of space magnetism near Earth, and its trippy simulation will really make you appreciate the safety of our gravitational bubble.
Earth is essentially a giant magnet and the area around the rocky planet is dominated by its magnetic field called a magnetosphere. Other rocky planets have them too, but Earth’s magnetosphere is the strongest, and the protection it provides gives us the cushy terrestrial lifestyle we are so accustomed to.
One of the most fundamental processes that occur in this area is called magnetic reconnection, which contributes to space’s dynamic weather system by dissipating magnetic energy and propelling charged particles called plasma. Gravity helps things move on Earth, and this magnetic reconnection is key to how charged particles move through space.
“In the plasma universe, there are two important phenomena: magnetic reconnection and turbulence,” said lead author Tai Phan in a statement. “This discovery bridges these two processes.”
Using four spacecraft flying in a pyramid formation, scientists were able to capture the never-before-seen moment when a magnetic “snap” occurred over crossed magnetic field lines tens of thousands of miles from Earth in a place just outside of the magnetosphere called the magnetosheath. This region is characterized by extremely turbulent solar wind paired with chaotic plasma – conditions scientists weren’t sure would allow for reconnection to occur.
Because the MMS fleet is designed to capture data at speeds 100 times faster than previous missions, researchers found these events do occur but at such a small-scale that previous missions weren’t able to capture them.
“The key event of the paper happens in only 45 milliseconds. This would be one data point with the basic data,” said Amy Rager, a graduate student at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the scientist who developed the technique. “But instead we can get six to seven data points in that region with this method, allowing us to understand what is happening.”
The research team says it could help advance studies on the Sun, predict space weather much like we predict Earth’s, and could serve as a better understanding of how to protect astronauts and spacecraft during missions. As if the discovery alone wasn’t impressive enough, these scientists also have some pretty incredible art skills.