Nav: Home

Auroral mystery solved: Sudden bursts caused by swirling charged particles

December 21, 2015

Japan -- Auroras are dimly present throughout the night in polar regions, but sometimes these lights explode in brightness. Now Japanese scientists have unlocked the mystery behind this spectacle, known as auroral breakup.

For years, scientists have contemplated what triggers the formation of auroral substorms and the sudden bursts of brightness. Appearing in the Journal of Geophysical Research, the current study overthrows existing theories about the mechanism behind this phenomenon.

The Kyoto-Kyushu research team has revealed that hot charged particles, or plasmas, gather in near-Earth space -- just above the upper atmosphere of the polar region -- when magnetic field lines reconnect in space. This makes the plasma rotate, creating a sudden electrical current above the polar regions. Furthermore, an electric current overflows near the bright aurora in the upper atmosphere, making the plasma rotate and discharge the extra electricity. This gives rise to the "surge", the very bright sparks of light that characterize substorms.

"This isn't like anything that us space physicists had in mind," said study author Yusuke Ebihara of Kyoto University.

Ebihara based the study on a supercomputer simulation program developed by Takashi Tanaka, professor emeritus at Kyushu University.

Auroras originate from plasma from the sun, known as the solar wind. In the 1970s, scientists discovered that when this plasma approaches the Earth together with magnetic fields, it triggers a change in the Earth's magnetic field lines on the dayside, and then on the night side. This information alone couldn't explain how the fluttering lights emerge in the sky, however.

Scientists had come up with theories for separate parts of the process. Some suggested that acceleration of plasma from the reconnection of magnetic field lines caused auroral breakup. Others argued that the electrical current running near the Earth diverts a part of the electrical current into the ionosphere for some unknown reason, triggering the bright bursts of light. This theory was widely accepted because it offered an explanation for why upward-flowing currents emerged out of our planet. But the pieces of the puzzle didn't quite fit well together.

Tanaka's supercomputer simulation program, on the other hand, offers a logical explanation from start to finish.

"Previous theories tried to explain individual mechanisms like the reconnection of the magnetic field lines and the diversion of electrical currents, but there were contradictions when trying to explain the phenomena in its entirety," said Ebihara. "What we needed all along was to look at the bigger picture."

The current paper builds on earlier work by Ebihara and Tanaka about how the bursts emerge. This explores the succeeding processes, namely how the process expands into a large scale breakup.

The research also has the potential to alleviate hazardous problems associated with auroral breakups that can seriously disrupt satellites and power grids.
-end-
The paper "Substorm simulation: Formation of westward traveling surge" will appear 21 December 2015 in the Journal of Geophysical Research, with doi: 10.1002/2015JA021697

Kyoto University is one of Japan and Asia's premier research institutions, founded in 1897 and responsible for producing numerous Nobel laureates and winners of other prestigious international prizes. A broad curriculum across the arts and sciences at both undergraduate and graduate levels is complemented by numerous research centers, as well as facilities and offices around Japan and the world. For more information please see: http://www.kyoto-u.ac.jp/en

Kyushu University is the premier research university in west Japan, a region rich in cultural and economic exchange with East Asia. The university has been engaged since 1911 in education, research, and medical activities at the highest levels since its establishment as the fourth imperial university. By responding to changing times, Kyushu University has helped nurture numerous outstanding individuals, and excels in areas such as engineering, chemistry, medicine, and energy.

Kyoto University

Related Plasma Articles:

Table top plasma gets wind of solar turbulence
Scientists from India and Portugal recreate solar turbulence on a table top using a high intensity ultrashort laser pulse to excite a hot, dense plasma and followed the evolution of the giant magnetic field generated by the plasma dynamics.
Getting the biggest bang out of plasma jets
Capillary discharge plasma jets are created by a large current that passes through a low-density gas in what is called a capillary chamber.
Neptune: Neutralizer-free plasma propulsion
Plasma propulsion concepts are gridded-ion thrusters that accelerate and emit more positively charged particles than negatively charged ones.
UCLA researchers discover a new cause of high plasma triglycerides
People with hypertriglyceridemia often are told to change their diet and lose weight.
Where does laser energy go after being fired into plasma?
An outstanding conundrum on what happens to the laser energy after beams are fired into plasma has been solved in newly-published research at the University of Strathclyde.
New feedback system could allow greater control over fusion plasma
A physicist has created a new system that will let scientists control the energy and rotation of plasma in real time in a doughnut-shaped machine known as a tokamak.
PPPL scientist uncovers physics behind plasma-etching process
PPPL physicist Igor Kaganovich and collaborators have uncovered some of the physics that make possible the etching of silicon computer chips, which power cell phones, computers, and a huge range of electronic devices.
Calculating 1 billion plasma particles in a supercomputer
At the National Institutes of Natural Sciences National Institute for Fusion Science (NIFS) a research group using the NIFS 'Plasma Simulator' supercomputer succeeded for the first time in the world in calculating the movements of one billion plasma particles and the electrical field constructed by those particles.
Anti-tumor effect of novel plasma medicine caused by lactate
Nagoya University researchers developed a new physical plasma-activated salt solution for use as chemotherapy.
Clarifying the plasma oscillation by high-energy particles
The National Institute for Fusion Science has developed a new code that can simulate the movement of plasma and, simultaneously, the movement of particles circulating at high speeds.

Related Plasma Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Anthropomorphic
Do animals grieve? Do they have language or consciousness? For a long time, scientists resisted the urge to look for human qualities in animals. This hour, TED speakers explore how that is changing. Guests include biological anthropologist Barbara King, dolphin researcher Denise Herzing, primatologist Frans de Waal, and ecologist Carl Safina.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#SB2 2019 Science Birthday Minisode: Mary Golda Ross
Our second annual Science Birthday is here, and this year we celebrate the wonderful Mary Golda Ross, born 9 August 1908. She died in 2008 at age 99, but left a lasting mark on the science of rocketry and space exploration as an early woman in engineering, and one of the first Native Americans in engineering. Join Rachelle and Bethany for this very special birthday minisode celebrating Mary and her achievements. Thanks to our Patreons who make this show possible! Read more about Mary G. Ross: Interview with Mary Ross on Lash Publications International, by Laurel Sheppard Meet Mary Golda...