Published: Sat, May 12, 2018
Research | By Raquel Erickson

NASA Spacecraft Find New Phenomenon In Earth's Magnetic Field

NASA Spacecraft Find New Phenomenon In Earth's Magnetic Field

In a turbulent magnetic environment, magnetic field lines become scrambled. As said, it is about magnetic reconnection, a major process in the charged particle-filled space referred to as plasma, which revolves around the Earth.

This new kind of magnetic reconnection is known as an "electron magnetic reconnection". The new discovery found reconnection where it has never been seen before - in turbulent plasma.

According to the scientists of the University of California at Berkeley in the United Nations, the magnetic reconnection phenomenon is a crucial process occurring in space.

"This discovery bridges these two processes", Phan said.

The new event occurred in a region called the magnetosheath, just outside the outer boundary of the magnetosphere, where the solar wind is extremely turbulent.

In the past, researchers were unaware whether reconnection might be possible there, as plasma is quite uncontrolled in that particular region. MMS found it does. The MMS mission contains four spacecraft that fly about four miles apart and gather data as they travel. They have also seen a flow of ionized hydrogen atoms emanate from the magnetosphere. Although the MMS instruments are immensely fast yet they are not capable of capturing turbulent reconnections in action, which can only be done by keen observation of the "narrow layers of fast moving particles". "Magnetic reconnection occurs when you have two magnetic fields pointing in opposite directions and they annihilate each other".


Because turbulent reconnection involves only electrons, it remained hidden from scientists looking for the telltale signature of standard magnetic reconnection: ion jets.

"The smoking gun evidence is to measure oppositely directed electron jets at the same time, and the four MMS spacecraft were lucky to corner the reconnection site and detect both jets", said Jonathan Eastwood, a lecturer at Imperial College, London, and a co-author of the paper. Shay was the one responsible for helping Phan analyze the data collected by the MMS spacecraft.

"The key event of the paper happens in 45 milliseconds".

The conclusions have been presented in an editorial article in the journal Nature and embody the use of an advanced technique that is effective in obtaining additional data from the already obtained readings. "But instead we can get six to seven data points in that region with this method, allowing us to understand what is happening".

The scientists are hopeful that more surprising events will be discovered in existing datasets using their new method. The findings have implications for universe far beyond our planet. The process named magnetic reconnection takes place in Earth's outer atmosphere known as magnetosheath and forms planet's first line of defense against intense solar wind.

By drawing a clearer picture of the physics of magnetic reconnection, the discovery promises to advance scientists' understanding of several open questions in solar physics.

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