A cohort of telescopes captured a special type of aurora borealis that stretched across the night sky like a glowing necklace with jewels, helping astronomers better understand the mechanics behind these beautiful light shows.
Known as northern lights pearls, these round Northern Lights appear in groups scattered across the sky, while more traditional aurora borealis appear flatter and more elongated. A group of 13 spacecraft, including the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Cluster mission, observed the process of triggering aurora borealis on the Earth’s day side, or the side facing the sun, providing new clues as to how these unique aurora borealis are formed.
The Northern Lights are caused by electrical storms or charged particles emitted by Solar. Observations collected on November 6, 2018 revealed that vortices at the edge of the Earth’s magnetosphere – the magnetic field that surrounds our planet and protects it from solar radiation – allow some of the sun’s charged particles to tunnel down to the earth’s surface, creating currents of aurora borealis, according to a statement from ESA.
The spacecraft were located on the night side of the Earth, near the planet’s magnetopause, the thin border at the outer edge of the magnetosphere. While some of the spacecraft observed the vortices, others observed the currents of particles flowing towards Earth. Combining these observations made it possible for researchers to study the entire process of formation of Northern Lights pearls for the first time, according to the statement.
“This discovery shows that the Cluster spacecraft is part of a ‘magnetospheric orchestra’ of missions that together enable additional science that is not possible to achieve with each mission individually,” said Philippe Escoubet, project researcher for ESA’s Cluster mission, in the statement.
The whirlpool-like vortices that provide a fast track for solar particles are formed when solar wind blows past the earth’s magnetopause, like a wind that stirs up seas and clouds. In turn, electrons from the solar wind spiral toward the magnetosphere and eventually reach The Earth’s upper atmosphere, where the electrons interact with hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. This causes the molecules to glow and form round aurora borealis beads that appear to be strung across the sky.
“It’s fantastic to use multisatellite missions to create connections between the dynamics at the edge of the magnetosphere and what we see in ionosphere far below “, says Steven Petrinec, physicist at Lockheed Martin Space and lead author of a study describing the results, in the statement.” Due to the lack of observations and sampling sites in the magnetosphere, it is important to take full advantage of multiple mission observations whenever possible to understand the connections between different processes within the large and complex system. “
These observations show how the use of several spacecraft placed at different vantage points can offer a more comprehensive picture of space. The group of instruments included four spacecraft from ESA’s Cluster mission, NASA’s four Magnetospheric Multiscale spacecraft, three Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions under Substorm’s spacecraft, the Geotail satellite and one from the US Defense Meteorological Satellite Program.
The results were published in the journal Limits in astronomy and space science.
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