Our Spacecraft Have Discovered a New Magnetic Process in Space

Just as gravity is one key to how things move on Earth, a process called magnetic reconnection is key to how electrically-charged particles speed through space. Now, our Magnetospheric Multiscale mission, or MMS, has discovered magnetic reconnection – a process by which magnetic field lines explosively reconfigure – occurring in a new and surprising way near Earth.

Invisible to the eye, a vast network of magnetic energy and particles surround our planet — a dynamic system that influences our satellites and technology. The more we understand the way those particles move, the more we can protect our spacecraft and astronauts both near Earth and as we explore deeper into the solar system.

Earth’s magnetic field creates a protective bubble that shields us from highly energetic particles that stream in both from the Sun and interstellar space. As this solar wind bathes our planet, Earth’s magnetic field lines get stretched. Like elastic bands, they eventually release energy by snapping and flinging particles in their path to supersonic speeds.

That burst of energy is generated by magnetic reconnection. It’s pervasive throughout the universe — it happens on the Sun, in the space near Earth and even near black holes.

Scientists have observed this phenomenon many times in Earth’s vast magnetic environment, the magnetosphere. Now, a new study of data from our MMS mission caught the process occurring in a new and unexpected region of near-Earth space. For the first time, magnetic reconnection was seen in the magnetosheath — the boundary between our magnetosphere and the solar wind that flows throughout the solar system and one of the most turbulent regions in near-Earth space.

The four identical MMS spacecraft — flying through this region in a tight pyramid formation — saw the event in 3D. The arrows in the data visualization below show the hundreds of observations MMS took to measure the changes in particle motion and the magnetic field.

The data show that this event is unlike the magnetic reconnection we’ve observed before. If we think of these magnetic field lines as elastic bands, the ones in this region are much smaller and stretchier than elsewhere in near-Earth space — meaning that this process accelerates particles 40 times faster than typical magnetic reconnection near Earth. In short, MMS spotted a completely new magnetic process that is much faster than what we’ve seen before.

What’s more, this observation holds clues to what’s happening at smaller spatial scales, where turbulence takes over the process of mixing and accelerating particles. Turbulence in space moves in random ways and creates vortices, much like when you mix milk into coffee. The process by which turbulence energizes particles in space is still a big area of research, and linking this new discovery to turbulence research may give insights into how magnetic energy powers particle jets in space.

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