Researchers led by an undergraduate student in Australia have developed a new way to map the Earth’s magnetosphere, confirming 60-year-old theories about the existence of massive plasma tubes in the upper atmosphere.
The discovery is the result of an honors project by Cleo Loi, a 23-year-old undergraduate at the University of Sydney, according to IFLScience. Loi realized she could use the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescope to study regions of the upper atmosphere that are poorly understood, but are crucial in deflecting charged particles which originate both from the sun and cosmic rays.
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Loi and her fellow researchers uncovered the existence of plasma structures situated in the upper regions of the magnetosphere. These plasma formations, which often take the shape of massive tubes, run parallel to the magnetic field and exist in low and high density variations. The plasma tubes also move over time, contributing to interference effects encountered by telescopes and satellites.
“We measured their position to be about 600 kilometers [373 miles] above the ground, in the upper ionosphere, and they appear to be continuing upwards into the plasmasphere. This is around where the neutral atmosphere ends, and we are transitioning to the plasma of outer space,” Loi observed.
“We saw a striking pattern in the sky where stripes of high-density plasma neatly alternated with stripes of low-density plasma. This pattern drifted slowly and aligned beautifully with the Earth’s magnetic field lines, like aurorae.”
Loi was able to develop an unusual and innovative use for the radio telescope array that was used in the study, splitting its 128 antennas into two halves in a process akin to using a pair of eyes. This allowed the researchers to visualize the plasma structures in real time, according to Io9, measuring the height, spacing, and angles of the tubes. Such a visualization of the plasma tubes, taking place in three dimensions, has never before been accomplished.
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While the study represents the first time that the plasma formations have been observed on this scale, the charged particles that populate the vacuum of space have been documented in other ways. Last year, NASA released a series of sound files from space, which were the result of waves of plasma striking an instrument on the Voyager 1 spacecraft at a frequency that humans can hear, as the Inquisitr previously reported.
Though Loi’s data was originally dismissed as “too good to be true” by her collaborators, she eventually was able to convince them of its accuracy. Her innovative techniques have now not only confirmed the existence of the plasma tubes, but revealed them in detail never before accomplished.
[Image: CAASTRO/Loi et al via IFLScience]