Magazine article Science News

Shelter from Space Storms: Energy Rebounds from Earth. (Science News This Week)

Magazine article Science News

Shelter from Space Storms: Energy Rebounds from Earth. (Science News This Week)

Article excerpt

Spewing a continuous stream of ions and electrons at about 400 kilometers per second, the sun fills interplanetary space with its particles. The strength of this solar wind varies from a benign breeze to a fierce gale. Now, observations show that Earth's outer atmosphere interacts dramatically with the solar wind and shields the planet from it.

Scientists have long known that Earth's magnetic field diverts part of the solar wind and its inherent energy. The new data, generated by NASA's Imager for Magne-to-pause-to-Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE) satellite, reveal that the outer atmosphere, too, diverts some of the dangerous energy. The finding was announced May 9 at a NASA press briefing in Washington, D.C., and is also the topic of two upcoming reports in the Journal of Geo-physical Research.

The newly recognized shield is the charged layer, known as the ionosphere, in the outer atmosphere. The ionosphere fills the interval between 300 and 1,000 km above Earth's surface. When a space storm hits this layer, it dumps up to a trillion watts of power into the atmosphere, says Stephen Fuselier of the Lockheed Martin Space Physics Lab in Palo Alto, Calif., a coauthor of the report. Low-intensity storms hit Earth weekly, while very-high-intensity storms happen once every 3 to 4 years.

The massive current from a space storm heats the ionosphere, which dissipates energy by immediately ejecting some of its own oxygen and hydrogen ions into space. A few hundred tons of gas--roughly equal to the volume of the Louisiana Superdome--are lost each storm, says Fuselier. …

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