AskDefine | Define magnetosphere

Dictionary Definition

magnetosphere n : the magnetic field of a planet; the volume around the planet in which charged particles are subject more to the planet's magnetic field than to the solar magnetic field

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. the comet-shaped region around the Earth, shaped by the solar wind and the Earth's magnetic field, in which charged particles are trapped or deflected


Extensive Definition

A magnetosphere''' is the region around an astronomical object in which phenomena are dominated or organized by its magnetic field. Earth is surrounded by a magnetosphere, as are the magnetized planets Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Jupiter's moon Ganymede is magnetized, but too weakly to trap solar wind plasma. Mars has patchy surface magnetization. The term "magnetosphere" has also been used to describe regions dominated by the magnetic fields of celestial objects, e.g. pulsar magnetospheres.

History of magnetospheric physics

The Earth's magnetosphere was discovered in 1958 by Explorer 1 during the research performed for the International Geophysical Year. Before this, scientists knew that electric currents flowed in space, because solar eruptions sometimes led to "magnetic storm" disturbances. No one knew, however, where those currents flowed and why, or that the solar wind existed. In August and September of 1958, Project Argus was performed to test a theory about the formation of radiation belts that may have tactical use in war.
In 1959 Thomas Gold proposed the name magnetosphere, when he wrote:
"The region above the ionosphere in which the magnetic field of the earth has a dominant control over the motions of gas and fast charged particles is known to extend out to a distance of the order of 10 earth radii; it may appropriately be called the magnetosphere." Journal of Geophysical Results LXIV. 1219/1

Earth's magnetosphere

The magnetosphere of Earth is a region in space whose shape is determined by the extent of Earth's internal magnetic field, the solar wind plasma, and the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF). In the magnetosphere, a mix of free ions and electrons from both the solar wind and the Earth's ionosphere is confined by magnetic and electric forces that are much stronger than gravity and collisions. In spite of its name, the magnetosphere is distinctly non-spherical. On the side facing the Sun, the distance to its boundary (which varies with solar wind intensity) is about 70,000 km (10-12 Earth radii or RE, where 1 RE=6371 km; unless otherwise noted, all distances here are from the Earth's center). The boundary of the magnetosphere ("magnetopause") is roughly bullet shaped, about 15 RE abreast of Earth and on the night side (in the "magnetotail" or "geotail") approaching a cylinder with a radius 20-25 RE. The tail region stretches well past 200 RE, and the way it ends is not well-known.
The outer neutral gas envelope of Earth, or geocorona, consists mostly of the lightest atoms, hydrogen and helium, and continues beyond 4-5 RE, with diminishing density. The hot plasma ions of the magnetosphere acquire electrons during collisions with these atoms and create an escaping "glow" of fast atoms that have been used to image the hot plasma clouds by the IMAGE mission. The upward extension of the ionosphere, known as the plasmasphere, also extends beyond 4-5 RE with diminishing density, beyond which it becomes a flow of light ions called the polar wind that escapes out of the magnetosphere into the solar wind. Energy deposited in the ionosphere by auroras strongly heats the heavier atmospheric components such as oxygen and molecules of oxygen and nitrogen, which would not otherwise escape from Earth's gravity. Owing to this highly variable heating, however, a heavy atmospheric or ionospheric outflow of plasma flows during disturbed periods from the auroral zones into the magnetosphere, extending the region dominated by terrestrial material, known as the fourth or plasma geosphere, at times out to the magnetopause.
What follows is a condensed overview of the Earth's magnetosphere only. To avoid an overlong presentation, this section gives a general introduction. The
  1. motion of particles trapped in the magnetosphere (MOT),
  2. physics of magnetic storms and plasma flows (MSPF), and
  3. history of magnetospheric research (HIST)
will be covered separately. This is a nontechnical overview and more technical discussions are cited at the end.

General properties

Two factors determine the structure and behavior of the magnetosphere: (1) The internal field of the Earth, and (2) The solar wind.
  1. The internal field of the Earth (its "main field") appears to be generated in the Earth's core by a dynamo process, associated with the circulation of liquid metal in the core, driven by internal heat sources. Its major part resembles the field of a bar magnet ("dipole field") inclined by about 10° to the rotation axis of Earth, but more complex parts ("higher harmonics") also exist, as first shown by Carl Friedrich Gauss. The dipole field has an intensity of about 30,000-60,000 nanoteslas (nT) at the Earth's surface, and its intensity diminishes like the inverse of the cube of the distance, i.e. at a distance of R Earth radii it only amounts to 1/R³ of the surface field in the same direction. Higher harmonics diminish faster, like higher powers of 1/R, making the dipole field the only important internal source in most of the magnetosphere.
  2. The solar wind is a fast outflow of hot plasma from the sun in all directions. Above the sun's equator it typically attains 400 km/s; above the sun's poles, up to twice as much. The flow is powered by the million-degree temperature of the sun's corona, for which no generally accepted explanation exists as yet. Its composition resembles that of the Sun—about 95% of the ions are protons, about 4% helium nuclei, with 1% of heavier matter (C, N, O, Ne, Si, Mg... up to Fe) and enough electrons to keep charge neutrality. At Earth's orbit its typical density is 6 ions/cm3 (variable, as is the velocity), and it contains a variable interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) of (typically) 2–5 nT. The IMF is produced by stretched-out magnetic field lines originating on the Sun, a process described in the section on magnetic storms and plasma flows, referred to in what follows as simply MSPF.
Physical reasons (MSPF) make it difficult for solar wind plasma with its embedded IMF to mix with terrestrial plasma whose magnetic field has a different source. The two plasmas end up separated by a boundary, the magnetopause, and the Earth's plasma is confined to a cavity inside the flowing solar wind, the magnetosphere. The isolation is not complete, thanks to secondary processes such as magnetic reconnection (MSPF)—otherwise it would be hard for the solar wind to transmit much energy to the magnetosphere—but it still determines the overall configuration.
An additional feature is a collision-free bow shock which forms in the solar wind ahead of Earth, typically at 13.5 RE on the sunward side. It forms because the solar velocity of the wind exceeds (typically 2–3 times) that of Alfvén waves, a family of characteristic waves with which disturbances propagate in a magnetized fluid. In the region behind the shock ("magnetosheath") the velocity drops briefly to the Alfvén velocity (and the temperature rises, absorbing lost kinetic energy), but the velocity soon rises back as plasma is dragged forward by the surrounding solar wind flow.
To understand the magnetosphere, one needs to visualize its magnetic field lines, that everywhere point in the direction of the magnetic field—e.g., diverging out near the magnetic north pole (or geographic southpole), and converging again around the magnetic south pole (or the geographic northpole), where they enter the Earth. They are discussed in MSPF, but for now they can be visualized like wires which tie the magnetosphere together—wires that also guide the motions of trapped particles, which slide along them like beads (though other motions may also occur).

Radiation belts

When the first scientific satellites were launched in the first half of 1958--Explorers 1 and 3 by the US, Sputnik 3 by the Soviet Union--they observed an intense (and unexpected) radiation belt around Earth, held by its magnetic field. "My God, Space is Radioactive!" exclaimed one of Van Allen's colleagues, when the meaning of those observations was realized. That was the "inner radiation belt" of protons with energies in the range 10-100 MeV (megaelectronvolts), attributed later to "albedo neutron decay," a secondary effect of the interaction of cosmic radiation with the upper atmosphere. It is centered on field lines crossing the equator about 1.5 RE from the Earth's center.
Later a population of trapped ions and electrons was observed on field lines crossing the equator at 2.5–8 RE. The high-energy part of that population (about 1 MeV) became known as the "outer radiation belt", but its bulk is at lower energies (peak about 65 keV) and is identified as the ring current plasma.
The trapping of charged particles in a magnetic field can be quite stable. This is particularly true in the inner belt, because the build-up of trapped protons from albedo neutrons is quite slow, requiring years to reach observed intensities. In July 1962, the United States tested an H-bomb high over the south pacific at around 400 km in the upper atmosphere, in this region, creating an artificial belt of high-energy electrons, and some of them were still around 4–5 years later (such tests are now banned by treaty).
The outer belt and ring current are less persistent, because charge-exchange collisions with atoms of the geocorona (see above) tends to remove their particles. That suggests the existence of an effective source mechanism, continually supplying this region with fresh plasma. It turns out that the magnetic barrier can be broken down by electric forces, as discussed in MSPF. If plasma is pushed hard enough, it generates electric fields which allow it to move in response to the push, often (not always) deforming the magnetic field in the process.

Magnetic tails

A magnetic tail is formed by solar winds blowing electrified gases, plasma, trapped in a planet's magnetosphere away from the sun. The magnetic tail can extend great distances away from its originating planet. Earth's magnetic tail extends beyond the orbit of the Moon, while Jupiter's magnetic tail is believed to extend beyond the orbit of Saturn. The plasma in the tail is revolving, reaching the end of the tail and then folding back in on itself and returning to the planet it originated from.
There are also gaps in the magnetic tail, called troughs, where no stream of material exists. These troughs change in size and location, and can reconnect at later points in the tail. The night-side magnetic tail can sometimes whip violently back, throwing large amounts of superheated plasma and highly charged particles at the originating planet.

Electric currents in space

Most people first encounter magnetism as a strange property of permanent magnets made of iron, or of a small range of ferromagnetic materials. Further experience may broaden this to also include electromagnets, but they too (when used on a small scale) require a ferromagnetic core. In space, however, magnetic fields owe their existence solely to electric currents, with no role for ferromagnetism. Magnetism due to electric currents alone was first noted by Oersted and Ampère in 1820, and is a fundamental property of "Maxwell's Equations" (1864), the mathematical formulation of electromagnetism due to James Clerk Maxwell. Ferromagnetism in contrast is a somewhat unusual feature, associated among other things with the quantum theory of the electron, which grants it (apart from its electric charge) a "spin," and with it also the properties of a small magnetic dipole.
Magnetic fields from currents that circulate in the magnetospheric plasma extend the Earth's magnetism much further in space than would be predicted from the Earth's internal field alone. Such currents also determine the field's structure far from Earth, creating the regions described in the introduction above.
Similarly, in everyday applications, electric currents always require a "voltage" to drive them, a sort of electric pressure difference (a pressure known as "electric potential"), similar to the pressure difference that drives water along a pipe. Ohm's law is observed to hold fairly well in metallic conductors used by electric technology (e.g. wires) and it predicts a current proportional to voltage. Double the voltage and the current doubles, remove it and no current can flow.
Not so in the magnetosphere (and in many plasmas) where currents (with one important exception) need no voltage to drive them. Any electric current is the transport of electric charge, but in many cases, such transport is already implied by the structure of the field and the plasma. For instance, electrons and positive ions trapped in the dipole-like field near the Earth tend to circulate around the magnetic axis of the dipole (the line connecting the magnetic poles), without gaining or losing energy (see MOT, also "Guiding center motion"). Viewed from above the magnetic north pole (geographic south), ions circulate clockwise, electrons counterclockwise, producing a net circulating clockwise current, known (from its shape) as the ring current. No voltage is needed--the current arises naturally from the motion of the ions and electrons in the magnetic field, as described in the MSPF.
Any such current will modify the magnetic field. The ring current, for instance, strengthens the field on its outside, helping expand the size of the magnetosphere. At the same time, it weakens the magnetic field in its interior. In a magnetic storm, plasma is added to the ring current, making it temporarily stronger, and the field at Earth is observed to weaken by up to 1-2%.
The deformation of the magnetic field, and the flow of electric currents in it, are intimately linked, making it often hard to label one as cause and the other as effect. Frequently (as in the magnetopause and the magnetotail) it is intuitively more useful to regard the distribution and flow of plasma as the primary effect, producing the observed magnetic structure, with the associated electric currents just one feature of those structures, more of a consistency requirement of the magnetic structure.
As noted, one exception (at least) exists, a case where voltages do drive currents. That happens with Birkeland currents, which flow from distant space into the near-polar ionosphere, continue at least some distance in the ionosphere, and then return to space. (Part of the current then detours and leaves Earth again along field lines on the morning side, flows across midnight as part of the ring current, then comes back to the ionosphere along field lines on the evening side and rejoins the pattern.) The full circuit of those currents, under various conditions, is still under debate.
Because the ionosphere is an ohmic conductor of sorts, such flow will heat it up. It will also give rise to secondary Hall currents, and accelerate magnetospheric particles--electrons in the arcs of the polar aurora, and singly-ionized oxygen ions (O+) which contribute to the ring current.

Classification of magnetic fields

  1. The system of tail currents. The magnetotail consists of twin bundles of oppositely directed magnetic field (the "tail lobes"), directed earthwards in the northern half of the tail and away from Earth in the southern half. In between the two exists a layer ("plasma sheet") of denser plasma (0.3-0.5 ions/cm3 vs. 0.01-0.02 in the lobes), and because of the difference between the adjoining magnetic fields, by Ampére's law an electric current flows there too, directed from dawn to dusk. The flow closes (as it must) by following the tail magnetopause--part over the northern lobe, part over the southern one.
  2. The Birkeland current field (and its branches in the ionosphere and ring current), a circuit is associated with the polar aurora. Unlike the 3 preceding current systems, it does require a constant input of energy, to provide the heating of its ionospheric path and the acceleration of auroral electrons and of positive ions. The energy probably comes from a dynamo process, meaning that part of the circuit threads a plasma moving relative to Earth, either in the solar wind and in "boundary layer" flows which it drives just inside the magnetopause, or by plasma moving earthward in the magnetotail, as observed during substorms (below).

Magnetic substorms and storms

Earlier it was stated that "if plasma is pushed hard enough, it generates electric fields which allow it to move in response to the push, often (not always) deforming the magnetic field in the process." Two examples of such "pushing" are particularly important in the magnetosphere. The THEMIS mission is a NASA program to study in detail the physical processes involved in substorms.
The more common one occurs when the north-south component Bz of the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) is appreciable and points southward. In this state field lines of the magnetosphere are relatively strongly linked to the IMF, allowing energy and plasma to enter it at relatively high rates. This swells up the magnetotail and makes it unstable. Ultimately the tail's structure changes abruptly and violently, a process known as a magnetic substorm.
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