Though close to home, the space immediately around Earth is full of hidden secrets and invisible processes. In a new discovery reported in the journal Nature, scientists working with NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale spacecraft — MMS — have uncovered a new type of magnetic event in our near-Earth environment by using an innovative technique to squeeze extra information out of the data.
The ancients believed that the Earth was surrounded by celestial spheres, which produced divine music when they moved. We lived, so to speak, in a huge musical instrument. This may sound silly but modern science has proved them right to a certain extent. Satellites recording sound waves resonating with the Earth’s magnetosphere – the magnetic bubble that protects us from space radiation – show that we are indeed living inside a massive, magnetic musical instrument.
In 1981, the Voyager 2 space probe took intriguing images of Saturn’s rings as it passed by the giant planet on its way to Uranus. The images showed what looked like ghostly “spokes” moving on the rings, much like the spokes of a bicycle wheel as it turns. After some head-scratching, scientists realized that the Saturnian spokes most likely were tiny specks of dust moving around the rings due to electric and magnetic forces. These forces result from electrically charged gases known as plasma.
There’s a lot we don’t know about many of the magnetic effects we see throughout the universe. The familiar, beautiful northern lights, for example, are actually a bit of an enigma. They are driven by a mysterious magnetic process in which a huge amount of energy is explosively released when particles from the sun hit the Earth’s magnetosphere. This is so powerful it can even break down the Earth’s magnetic shield that normally protects us from harmful, charged particles.