Saturday, 26 Jul, 2008 Science

Blasts of Magnetic Energy Between the Earth and the Moon Illuminate Skies


NASA scientists said that sparkles and wavy radiances of the Northern Lights and the Aurora Australis are caused by blasts of magnetic energy between Earth and its satellite, the moon.

The phenomenon was observed by a network composed of 5 satellites, a mission dubbed THEMIS. The satellites helped scientists in understanding the mystery behind aurora borealis.

"We discovered what makes the Northern Lights dance," said Vassilis Angelopoulos of the University of California, Los Angeles. Mr Angelopoulos is the lead researcher for the THEMIS mission. The abbreviation stands for Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms.

According to the researchers, the blasts of energy that occur 1/3 the way between our planet and the moon, power the substorms thus causing wavy radiances and quick movements of the northern lights.

It is worth mentioning that magnetic substorms can have an impact on the electrical systems of our planet. These substorms can knock out satellites and cause a disruption of electricity and transmission systems.

A similar effect is caused by sudden discharges of plasma from the Sun. The danger behind substorms may also embrace astronauts who perform a mission in space. It's a challenge that astronauts may face on future missions to the moon and Mars.

Scientists hope their recent findings would help in predicting substorms with a better accuracy.

"We need to understand this environment and eventually be able to predict when these large energy releases will happen, so astronauts can go inside their spacecraft and we can turn off critical systems on satellites so they will not be damaged. This has been exceedingly difficult in the past because previous missions, which measured the plasma at one location, were unable to determine the origin of the large space storms" said Professor Angelopoulos.

Substorms are caused by magnetic reconnection, which represents a process that commonly takes place across the universe when stressed magnetic field lines spontaneously form a new shape, resembling an overstretched rubber band.

"Magnetic reconnection releases the energy stored within these stretched magnetic field lines, flinging charged particles back toward the Earth's atmosphere," said David Sibeck, the project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre, who works on the THEMIS project.

"They create haloes of shimmering aurora circling the northern and southern poles."

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