news 20-February-2018 06:41:37

Cluster finds giant gas vortices at the edge of Earth's magnetic bubble

12 August 2004

ESA's quartet of space-weather watchers, Cluster, has discovered vortices of ejected solar material high above the Earth. The superheated gases trapped in these structures are probably tunnelling their way into the Earth's magnetic 'bubble', the magnetosphere. This discovery possibly solves a 17-year-mystery of how the magnetosphere is constantly topped up with electrified gases when it should be acting as a barrier.

3D view of Earth's magnetosphere with Kelvin Helmholtz vortices

The Earth's magnetic field is our planet's first line of defence against the bombardment of the solar wind. The solar wind itself is launched from the Sun and carries the Sun's magnetic field throughout the Solar System. Sometimes this magnetic field is aligned with Earth's and sometimes it points in the opposite direction.

When the two fields point in opposite directions, scientists understand how 'doors' in Earth's field can open. This phenomenon, called 'magnetic reconnection', allows the solar wind to flow in and collect in the reservoir known as the boundary layer. On the contrary, when the fields are aligned they should present an impenetrable barrier to the flow. However, spacecraft measurements of the boundary layer, dating back to 1987, present a puzzle because they clearly show that the boundary layer is fuller when the fields are aligned than when they are not. So how is the solar wind getting in?

For the full release visit the ESA Science Media Centre.

For the full paper visit the Nature Website.

Last Update: 09 September 2014

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