Tuesday, December 11, 2007

NASA's New Discoveries About Northern Lights

Photo credit: Daryl Pederson

NASA reported today on the latest discoveries about the Northern Lights.

NASA's fleet of THEMIS spacecraft, launched less than 8 months ago, has made three important discoveries about spectacular eruptions of Northern Lights called "substorms" and the source of their power. The discoveries include giant magnetic ropes that connect Earth's upper atmosphere to the Sun and explosions in the outskirts of Earth's magnetic field.

The discoveries began in March less than a month after the five THEMIS satellites had been activated. "On March 23, 2007, a substorm erupted over Alaska and Canada producing vivid auroras for more than two hours." A network of ground cameras organized to support THEMIS photographed the display from below while the satellites measured particles and fields from above.

Right away the substorm surprised investigators: "The auroras surged westward twice as fast as anyone thought possible, crossing 15 degrees of longitude in less than one minute," says Angelopoulos. The storm had traversed an entire polar time zone in 60 seconds flat!

"The satellites have found evidence for magnetic ropes connecting Earth's upper atmosphere directly to the Sun," says Dave Sibeck, project scientist for the mission at the Goddard Space Flight Center. "We believe that solar wind particles flow in along these ropes, providing energy for geomagnetic storms and auroras."

A "magnetic rope" is a twisted bundle of magnetic fields organized much like the twisted hemp of a mariner's rope. Spacecraft have detected hints of these ropes before, but a single spacecraft is insufficient to map their 3D structure. THEMIS's five satellites were able to perform the feat.

I don't really understand all of this, but it's still really cool. The Northern Lights are amazing, but the idea that magnetic ropes are connecting our atmosphere to the Sun is just mind-boggling. I hope NASA keeps up the good work.

NASA's aurora photo gallery is here.

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