Giant vortices found near Earth by Cluster satellites
EUROPEAN SPACE AGENCY NEWS RELEASE
Posted: August 11, 2004
ESA's quartet of space-weather watchers, Cluster, has discovered vortices of ejected solar material high above the Earth. The superheated gases trapped in these structures are probably tunnelling their way into the Earth's magnetic 'bubble', the magnetosphere. This discovery possibly solves a 17-year-mystery of how the magnetosphere is constantly topped up with electrified gases when it should be acting as a barrier.
When the two fields point in opposite directions, scientists understand how 'doors' in Earth's field can open. This phenomenon, called 'magnetic reconnection', allows the solar wind to flow in and collect in the reservoir known as the boundary layer. On the contrary, when the fields are aligned they should present an impenetrable barrier to the flow. However, spacecraft measurements of the boundary layer, dating back to 1987, present a puzzle because they clearly show that the boundary layer is fuller when the fields are aligned than when they are not. So how is the solar wind getting in?
Thanks to the data from the four formation-flying spacecraft of ESA's Cluster mission, scientists have made a breakthrough. On 20 November 2001, the Cluster flotilla was heading around from behind Earth and had just arrived at the dusk side of the planet, where the solar wind slides past Earth's magnetosphere. There it began to encounter gigantic vortices of gas at the magnetopause, the outer 'edge' of the magnetosphere.
"These vortices were really huge structures, about six Earth radii across," says Dr Hiroshi Hasegawa, Dartmouth College, New Hampshire who has been analysing the data with help from an international team of colleagues. Their results place the size of the vortices at almost 40000 kilometres each, and this is the first time such structures have been detected.
These vortices are known as products of Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities (KHI). They can occur when two adjacent flows are travelling with different speeds, so one is slipping past the other. Good examples of such instabilities are the waves whipped up by the wind slipping across the surface of the ocean. Although KHI-waves had been observed before, this is the first time that vortices are actually detected.
When a KHI-wave rolls up into a vortex, it becomes known as a 'Kelvin Cat's eye'. The data collected by Cluster have shown density variations of the electrified gas, right at the magnetopause, precisely like those expected when travelling through a 'Kelvin Cat's eye'.
Scientists had postulated that, if these structures were to form at the magnetopause, they might be able to pull large quantities of the solar wind inside the boundary layer as they collapse. Once the solar wind particles are carried into the inner part of the magnetosphere, they can be excited strongly, allowing them to smash into Earth's atmosphere and give rise to the aurorae.
Cluster's discovery strengthens this scenario but does not show the precise mechanism by which the gas is transported into Earth's magnetic bubble. Thus, scientists still do not know whether this is the only process to fill up the boundary layer when the magnetic fields are aligned. For those measurements, Hasegawa says, scientists will have to wait for a future generation of magnetospheric satellites.
The results of this investigation will appear in Thursday's issue of the scientific journal 'Nature', in a paper entitled 'Transport of solar wind into Earth's magnetosphere through rolled-up Kelvin-Helmholtz vortices', by H. Hasegawa, M. Fujimoto, T.D. Phan, H. Reme, A. Balogh, M.W. Dunlop, C. Hashimoto and R. TanDokoro.
Cluster is a mission of international co-operation between ESA and NASA. It involves four spacecraft, launched on two Russian rockets during the summer of 2000. They are now flying in formation around Earth, relaying the most detailed ever information about how the solar wind affects our planet in 3D. The solar wind is the perpetual stream of subatomic particles given out by the Sun and it can damage communications satellites and power stations on Earth. The Cluster mission is expected to continue until at least 2005.
The ongoing archiving of the Cluster data (or Cluster Active Archive) is part of the International Living with a Star programme (ILWS), in which space agencies worldwide get together to investigate how variations in the Sun affect the environment of Earth and the other planets. In particular, ILWS concentrate on those aspects of the Sun-Earth system that may affect mankind and society. ILWS is a collaborative initiative between Europe, the United States, Russia, Japan and Canada.