New Mysterious Magnetic Phenomenon Discovered In Earth's Outer Atmosphere

NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission spacecraft has uncovered a new form of magnetic reconnection in a more turbulent region of the Earth’s outer atmosphere. Researchers say the discovery could lead to an understanding of the properties of the universe.  ( NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center | Mary Pat Hrybyk-Keith )

A fleet of NASA spacecraft has uncovered a new kind of magnetic phenomenon occurring in the outer layer of the Earth’s magnetic field.

The discovery is important according to scientists because it could help them understand the phenomenon’s influence on the Earth and the role it plays elsewhere in the universe.

NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission

The mysterious event, also known as a magnetic reconnection, was discovered by NASA’s unmanned Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission or MMS spacecraft in the turbulent space surrounding the Earth’s atmosphere.

NASA launched the MMS spacecraft from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex back in 2015. Its mission was to study and gather information about the microphysics of magnetic reconnection.

Mysterious Phenomenon: Magnetic Reconnection

In the past, scientists have already seen magnetic reconnection taking place in the universe, including in the Earth’s magnetic fields in a region called the magnetosphere. They also managed to observe the flow of ionized hydrogen atoms that emanate from it.

Recently, researchers caught the mysterious phenomenon in action once again, but this time as a new form occurring in a more turbulent region of the Earth’s atmosphere called magnetosheath. The magnetosheath is the region of space above the Earth that serves as a protective layer against solar wind, which is the continuous flow of plasma that originates from the Sun.

This new kind of magnetic reconnection is known as an “electron magnetic reconnection.” In comparison with the one observed in the past, it shoots off smaller electron jets instead of ionized hydrogen atoms. According to Michael Shay, a professor from the University of Delaware, the electrons are much harder to track and are moving 40 times faster than the ions.

“The turbulence in the magnetosheath contains a lot of magnetic energy,” said Tai Phan, who is the senior fellow in the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley. “People have been debating how this energy is dissipated and magnetic reconnection is one of the possible processes.”

The turbulent magnetic fields that surround the Earth is caused by the solar wind hitting the planet’s magnetic field. The magnetic energy originates from the Sun’s corona, and the particles that emanate from it travel at a speed of 1 million miles per hour.

Phan is the lead author of the study published on May 9 in the journal Nature. Shay was the one responsible for helping Phan analyze the data collected by the MMS spacecraft.

Why Is The New Discovery Important?

According to the researchers, the discovery could lead to an understanding of space environments and the properties of the universe. It could also help scientists understand more about how the process can have an effect on space satellites and electrical power industries.

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