Space Hurricane Seen Above Magnetic North Pole Was Raining Electrons
The first space hurricane ever was spotted in August 2014, consisting of “an eddy of plasma, a type of superhot, charged gas found throughout the solar system,” reports Business Insider. “And instead of rain, this storm brought showers of electrons.” From the report: In August 2014, satellites observed a swirling mass with a quiet center more than 125 miles above the North Pole. The space hurricane was more than 620 miles wide and high in the sky — it formed in the ionosphere, between 50 and 600 miles up. Lockwood and his coauthors used the satellite data to create a 3D model of the storm. The space hurricane lasted eight hours, swirling counterclockwise. The researchers said it had several spiral arms snaking out from its center, a bit like a spiral galaxy. By plugging the satellite data into a computer model, Lockwood and his collaborators were able to reproduce the storm and figure out what caused it. They found that charged particles emitted by the sun’s upper atmosphere, the corona, were to blame.

This steady stream of solar particles and coronal plasma is known as solar wind. It moves at about 1 million miles an hour. As solar wind reaches Earth, it encounters the planet’s magnetic field. Earth has such a field because of the swirling liquid iron and nickel in its outer core, which gives rise to electric currents. The magnetosphere protects the planet from deadly radiation from the sun but also retains a tiny layer of plasma from that solar wind. Typically, solar winds glance off this protective sheath. But sometimes the incoming charged particles and plasma interact with either the trapped plasma or the electrical currents generating the field. Such interactions create disturbances in the magnetosphere. The 2014 space hurricane was one such disturbance.

Usually, magnetic fields don’t mix. But if they do come close, portions of the fields can get realigned and even merge, forming a new pattern of magnetic energy. That’s what likely happened on the day of the space storm: An influx of solar wind energy formed a new pattern above Earth’s magnetic north pole. The storm acted as a channel from space into Earth’s atmosphere, funneling some electrons down past the planet’s armor. This particle rain could have wreaked havoc on our high-frequency radio communications, radar-detection systems, or satellite technology, the study’s authors said. That’s because charged solar particles that seep through Earth’s magnetic field can cause malfunctions in computers and circuitry on satellites and the International Space Station. Luckily, in this case, no issues were observed.

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