A very recent occurrence happened in the magnetosphere around Earth – more specifically the magnetotail! The magnetotail is the region of the Earth’s magnetosphere that is facing AWAY from the Sun (the TAIL-END, hence the name magnetoTAIL). This region is filled with all the magnetic field lines from the Earth’s highly ionized particles, whereas the other side (facing the Sun) is a combination of ionized particles from both the Earth and the Sun. And this is where the EXPLOSION happened, or more scientifically- a magnetic reconnection. A magnetic reconnection is when particles in highly ionized gas, aka PLASMA, collide and result in a massive, short but highly impactful explosion of electrons spewing out at supersonic speeds. It happens in plasma environments in space and also in fusion labs! Reconnection is responsible for explosive solar events, like solar flares, coronal mass ejections causing disturbances in Earth’s space environment.
Studying this is CRUCIAL for understanding and learning how to handle extreme outcomes from these types of events on Earth (like power outages) and in space (like Martian outages.. I mean astronauts safety on the ISS).
Magnetic reconnections occur every single day actually! From the twisting, connecting and recoiling of magnetic field lines, these kinds of explosions happen quite frequently. But the reason scientists, and myself, are so excited about this most recent one is because this is the first time spacecraft actually flew through the magnetotail when the explosion happened! In case anyone is wondering the spacecraft are totally A-OKAY! They have great thermal protection to handle these things.
The four spacecraft are part of NASA’s Magnetospheric Multi-Scale mission (MMS). This was the first for a lot of things, scientists were able to record speeds at 100 times faster than ever before, were able to track the changes in the magnetic fields and pick up any new electric fields, lastly they were able to calculate the speeds and directions of the particles!
They found that Earth’s magnetosphere which energizes the polar aurora are pretty calm and non-turbulent. But the sunny-side is where the magnet reconnection happens and jets of charged particles are flying in regions that can affect power on earth.
The first half of the mission was studying the side facing the Sun. On this side there is a lot of solar wind, constant flow of charged particles from the Sun colliding into Earth’s magnetic field, this causes an asymmetrical magnetic reconnection due to the different sides having different densities. Whereas in the magnetotail, the only field lines colliding are from Earth, so the particles are accelerated nearly symmetrically!! This is the first time this was ever observed.. strictly JUST Earth’s magnetic field lines having a magnetic reconnection –no Sun involved.