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Biggest Breach of Earth's Solar Storm Shield Discovered
Date Released: Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Source: Goddard Space Flight Center
Earth's magnetic field, which shields our planet from particles streaming outward from the Sun, often develops two holes that allow the largest leaks, according to researchers sponsored by NASA and the National Science Foundation.
"The discovery overturns a long-standing belief about how and when most of the solar particles penetrate Earth's magnetic field, and could be used to predict when solar storms will be severe. Based on these results, we expect more severe storms during the upcoming solar cycle," said Vassilis Angelopoulos of the University of California, Los Angeles, Principal Investigator for NASA's THEMIS mission (Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms). THEMIS was used to discover the size of the leak.
Earth's magnetic field acts as a shield against the bombardment of particles continuously streaming from the sun. Because the solar particles (ions and electrons) are electrically charged, they feel magnetic forces and most are deflected by our planet's magnetic field. However, our magnetic field is a leaky shield and the number of particles breaching this shield depends on the orientation of the sun's magnetic field. It had been thought that when the sun's magnetic field is aligned with that of the Earth, the door is shut and that few if any solar particles enter Earth's magnetic shield. The door was thought to open up when the solar magnetic field direction points opposite to Earth's field, leading to more solar particles inside the shield.
Breach in Earth’s Magnetic Field Cause for Concern
Posted on: Wednesday, 17 December 2008, 10:10 CST
Researchers announced on Thursday that current satellite surveillance has exposed the biggest breach ever seen in the magnetic field that shields the Earth from the majority of the sun's aggressive rays. The unearthing was found last summer by Themis, a group of five NASA satellites.
Scientists have known for a long time that the Earth's magnetic field, which protects us from harsh space weather, is comparable to an older home lets in brutal eruptions of charged particles from the sun. This kind of breach may cause luminous auroras and can disturb both satellite and ground communications.
Surveillance from Themis indicates that the Earth's magnetic field sometimes contracts cracks, letting solar wind break through the Earth's upper atmosphere.
Last summer, Themis mapped out a coating of solar particles to be 4,000 miles deep in the outermost area of the Earth's magnetosphere, the biggest rip of the defensive shield found thus far.
"It was growing rather fast," said Themis scientist Marit Oieroset of the University of California.
These kinds of breaches are momentary, and the one discovered last year was open for an hour, Oieroset added.