How solar storms squeeze Earth's magnetosphere

Researchers have created pictures showing how solar storms compress our planet's protective magnetic field. The findings could help improve communications satellite design.

Martin LaMonica
Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
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The panels on the right show how solar wind increased by up to 2 million miles per hour and compressed the Earth's magnetosphere, changes that can affect satellite communications. The sun is entering a period of increased activity. Southwest Research Institute

At a time of increasing solar storms, researchers have released images of how these solar outbursts affect the protective magnetic shield around the Earth.

The Southwest Research Institute yesterday published visualizations that show how powerful solar storms temporarily compress the magnetic field that surrounds the Earth.

Studying the impact of solar storms on the magnetosphere provides insight into how satellites could be affected. The sun is entering a period of peak activity where more coronal mass ejections of high-energy particles from the sun are expected in the year ahead.

Southwest Research Institute researchers collected data from two NASA spacecraft -- Two Wide-angle Imaging Neutral-atom Spectrometers (TWINS) and Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) -- to create a picture of a solar storm from 2010. That event is thought to have caused an important communications satellite to drift off course, a move which required more than a year to correct.

These images show measurements of energy emission as seen by NASA's TWINS spacecraft over time. The last two columns were taken about 20 minutes and one hour after the solar wind impact, showing how energy levels peaked and then started to drop again. Southwest Research Institute

If satellites drift from their orbits, they could potentially collide or, more likely, get close enough to interfere with each other's radio communications, said David McComas, assistant vice president of space science and engineering at the Southwest Research Institute.

The two NASA spacecraft provided different perspectives on the same event. The IBEX images were from a distance of about 180,000 miles while TWINS provided images from the inner magnetosphere at 28,000 miles.

Among other things, the data showed that 15 minutes after impact from the solar storm's energy, trapped particles moved toward the poles of the Earth's atmosphere.

"This imaging gives us a better global picture of the evolution of the magnetosphere -- especially of the processes by which the Sun injects energy into the magnetosphere -- than has ever been available before," McComas said in a statement. "It's a cool combination of two data sets that opens the door to much more sophisticated global studies."

With a better picture of the impact of solar storms, McComas said that engineers can better design satellites to avoid the impact on communications from solar weather.

Solar storms earlier this month brought a huge amount of energy to the Earth, enough to power all of New York City for two days, according to NASA. But because of the angle with which the energy struck the Earth, there was no noticeable disruption to satellites or the power grid.

A solar storm reaches Earth (images)

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