Although the idea of living in a bubble typically conjures up negative images, all life on Earth is reliant on the secure bubble that our magnetic field creates. It is important for our safety to understand how the field is created, how it shields us, and when it occasionally gives way to charged particles from the solar wind. For the first time, scientists have been able to confirm that strangely named bursty bulk flows are directly connected to abrupt changes in the magnetic field near Earth’s surface, which can harm pipelines and electrical power lines. This confirmation was made possible by data from ESA’s Cluster and Swarm missions as well as measurements from the ground.
The magnetosphere is a teardrop-shaped area of space that starts from Earth at a distance of around 65,000 kilometers (40,000 miles) and reaches a distance of more than 6,000,000 kilometers (3,700,000 miles) at night. It is created as a result of interactions between the supersonic wind coming from the Sun and the magnetic field of the Earth.
These interactions include complex electric current systems and highly dynamic magnetic field arrangements. By circulating highly energetic particles and currents throughout the system, some solar phenomena known as space weather can cause havoc with the magnetosphere and occasionally interfere with space-based equipment, ground-based communication networks, and power systems.
ESA’s distinctive four-spacecraft Cluster project has been uncovering the mysteries of our magnetic environment since 2000 from an elliptical orbit around Earth, up to 100,000 km (62,000 miles) distant. Amazingly, the mission is still operating flawlessly and continues to support groundbreaking research in the subject of heliophysics, which studies the interaction between the Sun and planets in the Solar System, in this case, Earth.
Launched in 2013, ESA’s trio of Swarm satellites orbit much closer to Earth and are primarily used to measure precisely the magnetic signals that originate from Earth’s core, mantle, crust, and oceans, as well as from the ionosphere and magnetosphere, in order to understand how our magnetic field is generated. Swarm is also providing fresh perspectives on the weather in space, though.
Scientists have a one-of-a-kind chance to delve deeply into the Earth’s magnetosphere and better comprehend the dangers of space weather because to the complementarity of these two projects, which are a component of the ESA Heliophysics Observatory.
Researchers examined the relationship between solar storms, bursty bulk flows in the inner magnetosphere, and perturbations in the ground level magnetic field that drive “geomagnetically induced currents” on and below Earth’s surface using data from both Cluster and Swarm as well as measurements from ground-based instruments in a paper published in Geophysical Research Letters.
We chose the example of a solar storm in 2015 for our research, according to Malcolm Dunlop from the UK’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. Data from Cluster allows us to study bursty bulk flows, or bursts of particles in the magnetotail, which during geomagnetically active periods lead to large-scale convection of material towards Earth and which are linked to auroral streamer characteristics in the northern lights. According to data from Swarm, the outer areas containing the flows were connected by linking field-aligned currents that caused correspondingly big perturbations closer to Earth.
We were able to demonstrate that significant magnetic field perturbations close to Earth are associated with the arrival of bursty bulk flows further out in space by combining our data with those made from the surface of the planet.
Anja Strmme, the Swarm mission manager for ESA, continued, “We were able to realize these discoveries because both missions were extended much beyond their projected lifespans and are thus in orbit concurrently.
Despite the fact that this scientific finding can seem a bit scholarly, society stands to gain from it.
The Sun provides our planet with the heat and light necessary to support life, but the solar wind it produces also bombards us with potentially harmful charged particles. We rely on satellites, GPS, and other navigation systems, as well as communication networks, for information and services in our everyday lives. These charged particles have the potential to harm these systems.
The infrastructure necessary to support contemporary life is expanding quickly both on Earth and in space, thus it is becoming more important to comprehend and monitor space weather in order to implement effective mitigation measures.
“These new data assist enhance our knowledge of processes within the magnetosphere which may lead to potentially dangerous space weather situations,” stated Alexi Glover from the ESA’s Space Weather Office. To provide dependable services for end users running potentially sensitive equipment, it is crucial to comprehend these phenomena and their possible repercussions.