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Sun's Rays to Roast Earth as Poles Flip
Scientists have discovered that its strength has dropped precipitously over the past two centuries and could disappear over the next 1,000 years.
'Earth's magnetic field has disappeared many times before - as a prelude to our magnetic poles flipping over, when north becomes south and vice versa,' said Dr Alan Thomson of the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh.
'Reversals happen every 250,000 years or so, and as there has not been one for almost a million years, we are due one soon.'
As to humans, our greatest risk would come from intense solar radiation bursts. Normally these are contained by the planet's magnetic field in space. However, if it disappears, particle storms will start to batter the atmosphere.
'These solar particles can have profound effects,' said Dr Paul Murdin, of the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge. 'On Mars, when its magnetic field failed permanently billions of years ago, it led to its atmosphere being boiled off. On Earth, it will heat up the upper atmosphere and send ripples round the world with enormous, unpredictable effects on the climate.'
ESA to probe Earth's magnetic field
Dubbed Swarm, the mission comprises three satellites which will blast off in a single launcher in 2009. The Swarm constellation will be arranged with two of the satellites flying in a side-by-side pair at an initial altitude of 450km and a single, higher, satellite at 530km.
The satellites' data will provide a unique view 'inside' the Earth. They will take precise and high-resolution measurements of the strength, direction and variation of the magnetic field, which, along with navigation, accelerometer and electric field measurements, will be used to untangle and model the various sources of the geomagnetic field.
The exact nature of the field is still something of a mystery, however. For instance, we know that the polarity of the field flips every million years or so. Some researchers think we may be seeing the beginning of a flip right now, but the debate is far from settled.
Earth’s Core in a Bottle
To understand the process that generates our planet’s protective magnetic field, Lathrop built the world’s most detailed physical model of where the action happens: Earth’s core. A 10-foot-wide steel sphere filled with 14 tons of liquid sodium stands in for the molten-iron outer core while a 3-foot-wide copper ball substitutes for the solid inner core. The whole contraption will spin four times a second to simulate Earth’s rotation.
According to theory, the churning of the molten iron outer core creates electricity, which, in turn, creates the geomagnetic field.
Using an earlier, smaller version of his device, Lathrop simulated the conditions around a black hole, learning that magnetic fluctuations help drag gas out of a safe orbit to a one-way trip into the hole.