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NASA Uncovers New Magnetic Processes In Earth’s Outer Atmosphere

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The universe is huge, and perhaps infinite, but there is still a lot more to explore about our home planet Earth. NASA’s spacecraft has discovered a mysterious magnetic phenomenon which sometimes turns up in Earth’s magnetic field. Scientists believe that this magnetic field is important, as it could help to understand its influence on Earth, and whether it has a role that it plays elsewhere in the universe.

The mysterious magnetic phenomenon is known as magnetic reconnection, which was studied by NASA’s mission known as the Magnetospheric Multiscale mission or MMS. The spacecraft was launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex in 2015 and its initial mission included studying and acquiring data regarding the microphysics of magnetic reconnection, an event that happens when magnetic fields connect and then break apart.

Scientists had previously discovered magnetic reconnection occurring in the universe, as well as in the Earth’s magnetic fields in a region called the magnetosphere. Also, they observed how ionized hydrogen atoms emanate from it.

However, just recently researchers captured the mysterious magnetic phenomenon again, occurring in a far more turbulent region of the planet’s atmosphere, known as the magnetosheath, which is a region of space further out still surrounding our planet which layers the planet against solar winds.

The new type of magnetic reconnection is dubbed “electron magnetic re-connection.” When the researchers compared it to the one observed before, they found that the latter shoots smaller electron jets. Michael Shay, a professor from the University of Delaware explained in a statement that electrons are much more challenging to track, because they move 40 times faster than ions.

“The turbulence in the magnetosheath contains a lot of magnetic energy,”  Tai Phan, who is the senior fellow in the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley said in a statement. “People have been debating how this energy is dissipated and magnetic reconnection is one of the possible processes.”

The turbulent magnetic fields which are surrounding our planet are caused by another event, when the solar winds hit against Earth’s magnetic field. That magnetic energy comes from the Sun’s corona and then the particles emanate from it and travel at speeds of 1 million miles per hour.

The findings of the team were published in the journal Nature on May 9. While Phan is the lead author, Shay was assisting Phan acquire and analyze huge amounts of data that NASA’s MMS spacecraft collected.

“The key event of the paper happens in 45 milliseconds,” said Amy Rager, a graduate student at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. “This would be one data point with the regular data, but instead we can get six to seven data points in that region with this method, allowing us to understand what is happening.”

The researchers suggest that the discovery could help everyone have a better understanding about different space environments, as well as the properties of the universe itself. Also, scientists would be able to comprehend processes that have an impact on space satellites and affect electrical systems.

“MMS has taken us to a whole new level,” Shay said. “It’s like knowing about atoms and then finding out about even tinier parts like the nucleus or the electrons. People were not expecting it.”

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