Did you know that the magnetic field of the Earth and that of the sun interact with each other? While ours is meant to protect us from the latter, the interplay between the two can still lead to explosions in space, and can even affect our planet’s surface. A new study published in the journal Science provides more insight into the nature of this relationship.
This has been made possible through the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission of NASA. A team of scientists from the University of Maryland wrote a paper based on these results, documenting the first ever direct observation of this interaction. It details out a phenomenon called magnetic reconnection that is characterised by two opposing magnetic field lines breaking and reconnecting, thereby emitting extensive energy. This discovery has implications on magnetism at large and space weather.
One of the authors of the study, James Drake, explains this interaction between two magnetic fields through an analogy: it is comparable to two trains on separate tracks travelling in opposing directions, and which shift to the same track at one point, crashing and releasing energy; this track switch would be the magnetic reconnection event.
Previous research indicates that reconnection might be the reason behind solar flares, and events of similar magnitude like coronal mass ejections, magnetic storms, and the North and South pole auroras.
The MMS mission allows for electrons at the edge of the magnetic field of the earth (on the side facing the sun) to be imaged once every 30 milliseconds, as opposed to once every 3 seconds by other devices before. This causes for more detailed data to be amassed. As Drake explains, what was previously a blur is now seen in detail. By measuring how electrons behave in a reconnection event is expected to provide more information about the event itself. Then, if reconnection is understood in a more in-depth manner, scientists can use this data to decipher the nature of other energetic astrophysical phenomena, as mentioned earlier. Furthermore, this will also allow researchers to grasp the essence of more energetic systems, even if our magnetic field is of a relatively low energy.