Scientists have discovered a new mysterious magnetic phenomenon occurring in Earth’s outer layer of the magnetic field, with the help of NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale spacecraft that was launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex back in 2015. The spacecraft’s mission was to study and collect information about the microphysics of magnetic reconnection.
Magnetic reconnection occurs when magnetic fields connect and then break apart. While magnetic reconnection has been observed a lot of times in the magnetosphere, which is the magnetic environment around Earth, this is the first time that it has been discovered in the magnetosheath, just outside the outer boundary of the magnetosphere.
The magnetosheath acts as Earth’s protective shield against strong solar winds. Until now, scientists didn’t know if reconnection even could occur in the magnetosheath.
Tai Phan, a researcher from the University of California, Berkeley, said that magnetic reconnection and turbulence are the two important phenomena that take place in the plasma universe. He added that the latest discovery bridges the gap between the two said processes. Phan is the lead author of the study.
Notably, NASA’s MMS makes use of four identical spacecraft flying in a pyramid formation to study magnetic reconnection around Earth in three dimensions. As the spacecraft fly very close together, they are capable of observing phenomena no one has ever seen before. Also the instruments onboard MMS are designed to capture data at speeds a hundred times faster than previous missions.
“The smoking gun evidence is to measure oppositely directed electron jets at the same time, and the four MMS spacecraft were lucky to corner the reconnection site and detect both jets”, Jonathan Eastwood, a lecturer at Imperial College, London, said.
The researchers believe that the discovery could help them in better understand the phenomenon’s influence on the Earth and the role it plays elsewhere in the universe.
The study findings have been published in the journal Nature.