A Brand New Space Weather Phenomenon Has Been Discovered Thanks To A Group Of UK Schoolkids

Artist's impression of the magnetosphere. NASA

The space environment around the Earth is defined by two major forces: the plasma from the solar wind and the magnetic field of our planet. The interaction between those gives rise to the northern and southern lights and to the radiation belt surrounding the world.

We're still a long way from understanding it all though, but some help has now come from a group of British school kids. They listened to the waves of plasma in the magnetosphere and discovered a very distinct phenomenon. Whenever a Coronal Mass Ejection, a solar storm, reaches Earth it shakes the magnetic field. The students heard a series of plasma waves slowly decreasing in pitch as the magnetosphere recovered. The findings are published in the journal Space Weather.

Students at Eltham Hill School, in South East London, worked with researchers from Queen Mary University on this project. The university team made the recordings of plasma movement in space audible by dramatically speeding it up. The human ear is actually very good at spotting changes and noticing patterns, and the young citizen scientists showed how good this approach can be.

“It was truly amazing to hear how significant the event we found was and that it will be forming the basis of a proper scientific paper,” Isobel Currie, one of the students involved in the project, said in a statement. “We gained so much experience and developed many skills during our research that will be useful during our time at university, and it gave us a great insight into the work conducted at that level.”

The data for the study was from NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environment Satellites. The study shows how a different approach can discover new phenomena in established data. The team is releasing the audible data for anyone to listen to it.

“Making data audible is uncommon and when done so is typically used only by the researchers themselves," lead author Dr Martin Archer said. "Involving the public in undertaking research, known as citizen science, tends to focus on crowdsourcing data or analysis, unlike this more explorative method. However, the study shows that useful and unexpected scientific results can come from this combined approach,” 

The research team will now focus on understanding the details of these decreasingly pitched waves, such as what kind of disturbance produces them and why their pitch decreases. This could help in better predicting space weather following solar storms, and it could be very important. A powerful storm could disrupt technology – such as your GPS, passenger airlines, or even entire power grids – and the destruction cost could be in the trillions of dollars for the US alone.

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