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Saturday, December 13, 2008

New Region of Earth's Magnetosphere Discovered


Scientists have discovered a new region of the magnetosphere, the invisible shield of magnetic fields and electrically charged particles that surround and protect Earth from the onslaught of the solar wind.
The northern and southern polar lights – aurora borealis and aurora australis – are the only parts of the magnetosphere that are visible, but it is a critical part of Earth's space environment.


"Although it is invisible, the magnetosphere has an impact on our everyday lives," Chappell said. "For example, solar storms agitate the magnetosphere in ways that can induce power surges in the electrical grid that trigger black outs, interfere with radio transmissions and mess up GPS signals. Charged particles in the magnetosphere can also damage the electronics in satellites and affect the temperature and motion of the upper atmosphere."


The other regions of the magnetosphere have been known for some time. Chappell and his colleagues pieced together a "natural cycle of energization" that accelerates the low-energy ions that originate from Earth's atmosphere up to the higher energy levels characteristic of the different regions in the magnetosphere.


The warm plasma cloak is a tenuous region that starts on the night side of the planet and wraps around the dayside but then gradually fades away on the afternoon side. As a result, it only reaches about three-quarters of the way around the planet. It is fed by low-energy charged particles that are lifted into space over Earth's poles, carried behind the Earth in its magnetic tail but then jerked around 180 degrees by a kink in the magnetic fields that boosts the particles back toward Earth in a region called the plasma sheet. link