Magnetic Tremors Pinpoint the Impact Epicenter of Earthbound Space Storms
The team’s study reveals that magnetic blast waves can be used to pinpoint and predict the location where space storms dissipate their massive amounts of energy. These storms can dump the equivalent of 50 gigawatts of power, or the output of 10 of the world’s largest power stations, into Earth’s atmosphere.
The energy that drives space storms originates on the sun. The stream of electrically charged particles in the solar wind carries this energy toward Earth. The solar wind interacts with Earth’s magnetic field. Scientists call the process that begins with Earth’s magnetic field capturing energy and ends with its release into the atmosphere a geomagnetic substorm.
“Substorm onset occurs when Earth’s magnetic field suddenly and dramatically releases energy previously captured by the solar wind,” said
“We see the benevolent side of space storms in the form of the Northern Lights,” said Mann. “When electrically charged particles speed toward Earth and buffet the atmosphere, the result is often a dancing, shimmering light over the polar region.” But there is also a hazardous side. Earth’s atmosphere protects us from the damaging direct effects of the radiation from space storms, but in space there is nowhere to hide. High-energy, electrically charged particles released by space storms can damage spacecraft. On Earth, disturbances caused by the particles and the electrical currents they carry can interrupt radio communications and global positioning system (GPS) navigation, and damage electric power grids.
Rae and Mann’s team has also determined that the magnetic tremors show that the space storm impact into the atmosphere has a unique epicenter, with the eye of the storm located in space beyond the low-Earth orbits of most communication satellites.
Guided by Earth’s magnetic field, the magnetic tremors rocket through space toward Earth. These geomagnetic substorms trigger magnetic sensors on the ground as they impact the atmosphere. The effects of these storms, and the most spectacular displays of the Northern Lights, follow a few minutes later.
The objective of NASA’s pioneering multi-spacecraft THEMIS mission is to determine what causes geomagnetic substorms. In addition to a well-instrumented fleet of five spacecraft, THEMIS operates a network of ground observatories stretching across
An analysis of the auroral movies and magnetic variations by Dr.
Probing the eye of a space storm and recognizing the advance warning signs are crucial for researchers trying to understand and predict space weather. Key questions about when and how space storms start are still challenging researchers on the THEMIS team. Like forecasters on Earth who predict severe weather, the
THEMIS is a NASA-funded mission and involves scientists from
For more information about the THEMIS mission, visit: