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Cold, electrically charged particles have long been suspected to exist tens of thousands of miles above the Earth's surface, and now scientists have detected such ions there for the first time. And they are significantly more abundant at those heights than previously imagined.
Cold is, of course, a relative term. Although these low-energy ions are 1,000 times cooler than what researchers might consider hot plasma, these particles still have an energy that would correspond to about 1 million degrees Fahrenheit. But because the density of the "cold" ions in space is so low, satellites and spacecraft can orbit through them without getting destroyed.
However, detecting cold plasma at those high altitudes has proven difficult. Spacecraft that far up accumulate an electrical charge, due to sunlight that makes them repel the cold ions.
The breakthrough came with one of the European Space Agency's four CLUSTER spacecraft. These are equipped with a detector composed of thin wire arms that measure the electric field between them as the satellite rotates.