Researchers using NASA’s fleet of five THEMIS spacecraft have discovered a form of space weather that packs the punch of an earthquake and plays a key role in sparking bright Northern Lights. They call it “the spacequake.”
Rumbles without sound
Auroras rain down
Magnetic fields shake
Beware the spacequake
27 Jul 10 – (Excerpts from NASA article) – A spacequake is a temblor in Earth’s magnetic field. It is felt most strongly in Earth orbit, but is not exclusive to space. The effects can reach all the way down to the surface of Earth itself.
“Magnetic reverberations have been detected at ground stations all around the globe, much like seismic detectors measure a large earthquake,” says THEMIS principal investigator Vassilis Angelopoulos of UCLA.
It’s an apt analogy because “the total energy in a spacequake can rival that of a magnitude 5 or 6 earthquake,” according to Evgeny Panov of the Space Research Institute in Austria. Panov is first author of a paper reporting the results in the April 2010 issue of Geophysical Research Letters (GRL).
The action begins in Earth’s magnetic tail, which is stretched out like a windsock by the million mph solar wind. Sometimes the tail can become so stretched and tension-filled, it snaps back like an over-torqued rubber band. Solar wind plasma trapped in the tail hurtles toward Earth. But what would happen then?
(See computer-simulated movie of a spacequake in action. It looks like a gigantic explosion in space.)
“Now we know,” says THEMIS project scientist David Sibeck of the Goddard Space Flight Center. “Plasma jets trigger spacequakes.”
According to THEMIS, the jets crash into the geomagnetic field some 30,000 km above Earth’s equator. The impact sets off a rebounding process, in which the incoming plasma actually bounces up and down on the reverberating magnetic field. Researchers call it “repetitive flow rebuffing.” It’s akin to a tennis ball bouncing up and down on a carpeted floor. The first bounce is a big one, followed by bounces of decreasing amplitude as energy is dissipated in the carpet.
The surprise is plasma vortices, huge whirls of magnetized gas as wide as Earth itself, spinning on the verge of the quaking magnetic field.
“When plasma jets hit the inner magnetosphere, vortices with opposite sense of rotation appear and reappear on either side of the plasma jet,” explains Rumi Nakamura of the Space Research Institute in Austria, a co-author of the study. “We believe the vortices can generate substantial electrical currents in the near-Earth environment.”
Read that again. “We believe the vortices can generate substantial electrical currents in the near-Earth environment.”
Acting together, vortices and spacequakes could have a noticeable effect on Earth. The tails of vortices may funnel particles into Earth’s atmosphere, sparking auroras and making waves of ionization that disturb radio communications and GPS. By tugging on surface magnetic fields, spacequakes generate currents in the very ground we walk on. Ground current surges can have profound consequences, in extreme cases bringing down power grids over a wide area.
Read that one again, too. “Spacequakes generate currents in the very ground we walk on.”
As you already know if you’ve read “Not by Fire but by Ice,” I suggest that massive surges of electricity surge through and above the earth during a magnetic reversal (p 192).
Author: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA
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Thanks to Hans Schreuder, Charlie Knoll, C. Peter Davis and Paul Hooks for this link