Violent Solar Storms Are Happening Closer to Earth Than Anyone Thought Was Possible

This aurora was captured on camera from the International Space Station in June 2017.
(Image: © NASA)

The spectacular solar storms that paint the polar skies in beautiful greens and pinks have a darker side: They have the power to wreak havoc on our electrical grid, communication systems and satellites. Now, a new study suggests that the source of these solar storms is much closer to our planet than previously thought.

Earth is shielded by a protective bubble known as the magnetosphere which blocks harmful solar radiation. But when the sun occasionally emits high-speed streams of radiation — and, with it, intense magnetic field lines — they can strongly interact with our planet’s own magnetic field.

As this solar wind hits the magnetosphere, the two sets of magnetic field lines become entangled. This interaction generates heat and accelerates the charged particles — ions and electrons— brought in by the solar wind, temporarily weakening the planet’s magnetic field and creating powerful magnetic storms that appear to us as auroras.

The spectacular solar storms that paint the polar skies in beautiful greens and pinks have a darker side: They have the power to wreak havoc on our electrical grid, communication systems and satellites. Now, a new study suggests that the source of these solar storms is much closer to our planet than previously thought.

Earth is shielded by a protective bubble known as the magnetosphere which blocks harmful solar radiation. But when the sun occasionally emits high-speed streams of radiation — and, with it, intense magnetic field lines — they can strongly interact with our planet’s own magnetic field.

As this solar wind hits the magnetosphere, the two sets of magnetic field lines become entangled. This interaction generates heat and accelerates the charged particles — ions and electrons— brought in by the solar wind, temporarily weakening the planet’s magnetic field and creating powerful magnetic storms that appear to us as auroras.

But because these storms are rare, and there aren’t enough satellites to observe them, it’s not clear exactly where and how this reconnection of magnetic field lines happened, the study’s researchers said in a statement.

To figure that out, the researchers used observations from NASA’s Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms (THEMIS) satellites. During solar storms, these satellites  sit at Earth’s magnetotail — the part of the magnetosphere on the side of the planet not facing the sun — which becomes elongated by the solar wind. The researchers found that this magnetic reconnection — the event that sparks magnetic storms — can occur much closer to our planet than previously thought: about three to four Earth diameters away, according to the statement.

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