Magnetic fields around the Earth create strong bursts of energy, accelerating particles and feeding up the aurora that illuminates the polar skies. On July 11, 2017, four NASA spacecraft observed one of these explosions. The process that produces these bursts is called magnetic reconnection, during which different plasmas and their associated magnetic fields interact, releasing energy. MSS satellites were launched in 2015 to explore the locations where this reconnection process takes place.
A recently presented study showed for the first time that during the mission the satellites found one of the places of this reconnection on the night side of the Earth’s magnetic field, which girded the planet with a long “magnetic tail”.
“This is an old mystery, this process is called reconnection,” said research author Roy Torbert from the University of New Hampshire. “The mission is exploring a fundamental and universal process in space.”
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The process of reconnection occurs due to the fact that the plasma of the Sun, a gas of charged particles, enters the Earth and its magnetic field. The solar plasma contains a magnetic field, represented as lines running through it, but these lines are in a different or opposite orientation relative to the Earth’s own magnetic field. The magnetic field lines are connected with the new lines, releasing energy.
The MMS spacecraft previously observed asymmetric reconnection events that occur on the sunlit side of the Earth, where the solar wind interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field. But on July 11, 2017, MMS was the first to observe a reconnection in the magnetic tail, where a symmetrical reconnection takes place. The event produced a jet of electrons moving at a speed of 20,000 kilometers per hour. Of course, you will not see these explosions directly, but a part of this energy feeds the aurora. And it is important for us to understand this process. This phenomenon occurs only in plasma, but plasma makes up the majority of the visible matter in the Universe.