Elusive matter found to be abundant far above Earth

Jan 24, 2012

(PhysOrg.com) -- Cold plasma has been well-hidden. Space physicists have long lacked clues to how much of this electrically charged gas exists tens of thousands of miles above Earth and how the stuff may impact our planet's interaction with the sun. Now, a new method developed by Swedish researchers makes cold plasma measurable and reveals significantly more cold, charged ions in Earth's upper altitudes than previously imagined.

At these lofty elevations, storms of high-energy charged weather — roil the atmosphere, creating auroras, buffeting satellites, and sometimes wreaking havoc with electronic devices and electric grids on Earth. The new evidence of abundant cold (i.e. low-energy) may change our understanding of this tumultuous space weather and lead to more accurate forecasting of it, scientists say. The finding might also shed light on what’s happening around other planets and moons — for instance, helping explain why the once robust atmosphere of Mars is so wispy today.

"The more you look for low-energy ions, the more you find," said Mats André, a professor of space physics at the Swedish Institute of Space Physics in Uppsala, Sweden, and leader of the research team. “We didn’t know how much was out there. It’s more than even I thought."

The low-energy ions are created in the ionosphere, a region of the upper atmosphere where solar energy can sweep electrons away from molecules, leaving atoms of elements like hydrogen and oxygen with positive charges. Actually detecting these ions at high altitudes has been extremely difficult.

Now that has changed, making it apparent that low-energy ions abound in the distant reaches where Earth's atmosphere gives way to outer space. Researchers knew the ions were present at altitudes of about 100 kilometers (60 miles), but André and his colleague Chris Cully looked much higher, between 20,000 and 100,000 km (12,400 to 60,000 mi). While the concentration of the previously hidden cold ions varies, about 50 to 70 percent of the time the particles make up most of the mass of great swaths of space, according to the researchers' satellite measurements and calculations. And, in some high-altitude zones, low-energy ions dominate nearly all of the time. Even at altitudes around 100,000 km — about a third of the distance to the moon — the team detected these previously elusive low-energy ions.

Finding so many relatively cool ions in those regions is surprising, André said, because there's so much energy blasting into Earth's high altitudes from the solar wind — a rushing flow of hot plasma streaming from the , which stirs up space-weather storms.

This hot plasma is about 1,000 times hotter than what André considers cold plasma — but even cold is a relative term. The low-energy ions have an energy that would correspond to about 500,000 degrees Celsius (about one million degrees Fahrenheit) at typical gas densities found on Earth. But because the density of the ions in space is so low, satellites and spacecraft can orbit without bursting into flames.

The researchers' new findings have been accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

For decades, space physicists have struggled to accurately detect low-energy ions and determine how much of the material is leaving our atmosphere. The satellite André works on, one of four European Space Agency CLUSTER spacecraft, is equipped with a detector with thin wire arms that measures the electric field between them as the satellite rotates. But, when the scientists gathered data from their detectors, two mysterious trends appeared. Strong electric fields turned up in unexpected regions of space. And as the spacecraft rotated, measurements of the electric field didn’t fluctuate in the smoothly changing manner that André expected.

"To a scientist, it looked pretty ugly," André said. "We tried to figure out what was wrong with the instrument. Then we realized there's nothing wrong with the instrument." Unexpectedly, they found that cold plasma was altering the structure of electrical fields around the satellite. Once they understood that, they could use their field measurements to reveal the presence of the once-hidden ions.

It's a clever way of turning the limitations of a spacecraft-based detector into assets, said Thomas Moore, senior project scientist for NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale mission at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. He was not involved in the new research.

As scientists use the new measurement method to map cold plasma around Earth, they could discover more about how hot and cold plasmas interact during space storms and other events, deepening researchers' understanding of space weather, André said.

The new measurements indicate that about a kilogram (two pounds) of cold plasma escapes from Earth's atmosphere every second, André said. Knowing that rate of loss for Earth may help scientists better reconstruct what became of the atmosphere of Mars, which is thought to once have been denser and more similar to ’s. The new cold plasma results might also help researchers explain atmospheric traits of other planets and moons, André suggested.

And closer to home, if scientists could develop more accurate space weather forecasts, they could save satellites from being blinded or destroyed, and better warn space station astronauts and airlines of danger from high-energy radiation. While low-energy ions are not responsible for the damage caused by space weather, they do influence that weather. André compared the swaths of ions to, say, a low-pressure area in our familiar, down-to-Earth weather — as opposed to a harmful storm. It is a key player, even if it doesn’t cause the damage itself. "You may want to know where the low-pressure area is, to predict a storm,” André noted.

Improving forecasts to the point where they're comparable to ordinary weather forecasting, was “not even remotely possible if you're missing most of your plasma," Moore, with NASA, said. Now, with a way to measure , the goal of high-quality forecasts is one step closer.

"It is stuff we couldn't see and couldn't detect, and then suddenly we could measure it," Moore said of the low-energy ions. "Now you can actually study it and see if it agrees with the theories."

Explore further: Life on Mars? Implications of a newly discovered mineral-rich structure

More information: “Low-energy ions: A previously hidden solar system particle population”, Geophysical Research Letters.

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User comments : 15

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FreeRangeRadical
3.1 / 5 (9) Jan 24, 2012
As a total neophyte, might I ask if this new-found low energy plasma might be part of the dark matter/dark energy question? This plasma does have mass, right? And does it also have energy? And if as much as I infer has been missed in the past, might this be the "missing link"?
HannesAlfven
1 / 5 (11) Jan 24, 2012
Re: "Strong electric fields turned up in unexpected regions of space. And as the spacecraft rotated, measurements of the electric field didnt fluctuate in the smoothly changing manner that André expected."

Guys, the cosmic plasma models are WRONG. MHD is being applied in a haphazard manner. Plasma's laboratory VI curve indicates that the resistance NEVER hits zero. The cosmic plasma models are being applied as if E-fields are oftentimes impossible, based upon an assumption that plasmas conduct like superconductors. This is simply NOT TRUE, and the ramifications are so severe for our scientific framework that this mess will take generations to fix.

If you can have E-fields in space, then objects in space will tend to act as anodes or cathodes. And before you know it, you are talking about a galactic circuit linking all of the components together.

Depending on how invested you are in the existing theories, these findings are either extremely exciting or incredibly threatening.
HannesAlfven
1 / 5 (11) Jan 24, 2012
Re: "... might I ask if this new-found low energy plasma might be part of the dark matter/dark energy question?"

YES, you're getting HOTTER. But, let's be clear here: The observation of E-fields in space is a complete game-changer. This is reason to suspect that gravity is not the universe's fundamental force after all, and that gravity is a side-effect of electromagnetism.

Wal Thornhill has been trying in vain for many years now to explain the ramifications of an electrical universe. Before him was Anthony Peratt and Gerrit Verschuur. Before them was Hannes Alfven, and before him was Kristian Birkeland and Ralph Juergens.

Willful ignorance is not a strategy for figuring out the most complex problem mankind has ever attempted to think about. People are free to disagree with the hypothesis, but does it make any sense to do so BEFORE learning what's known thus far of the new emerging electrical framework?

The way forward is to rethink what gravity actually is definitions matter.
kochevnik
1 / 5 (11) Jan 24, 2012
Hydrogen ions are created from space. The proximity of the planet rotates imaginary matter to have a modicum of a real component, the first appearance of which is hydrogen plasma. Experiments in vacuum tubes also demonstrated continuous hydrogen ion production in a vacuum tube.

Now the dialects can rank my post down without any rebuttal, which seems to be all they're good at. Physical, reproducible results don't move them.
Ethelred
4.7 / 5 (13) Jan 24, 2012
This plasma does have mass, right?
Yes.

And does it also have energy?
Not much beyond the energy of the mass. It is cold so it doesn't have much in the way of kinetic energy.

And if as much as I infer has been missed in the past, might this be the "missing link"?
No. It is a very small amount of mass and the orbital mechanics of the solar system seem to work quite well without adding to the mass of the Earth. Indeed the calculations for the mass of the Earth almost certainly already include it as the Earth is weighed by its motion through space-time.

Ethelred
Ethelred
4.7 / 5 (12) Jan 24, 2012
Now the dialects can rank my post down without any rebuttal,
You have been rebutted successfully many times.

Hydrogen ions are created from space.
No evidence.

Experiments in vacuum tubes also demonstrated continuous hydrogen ion production in a vacuum tube.
Funny how there is no sign of such an experiment. Would you care to post a link to a RELIABLE paper on it. As opposed to a paper that just wings it and makes unsupported claims. Heck I haven't even seen the latter yet.

My dialect is American English. Yours is Crank.

Physical, reproducible results don't move them.
Lie. That is something you don't have. I go on evidence. I have yet to see evidence that supports you.

Ethelred
Ethelred
4.6 / 5 (11) Jan 24, 2012
The observation of E-fields in space is a complete game-changer. This is reason to suspect that gravity is not the universe's fundamental force after all, and that gravity is a side-effect of electromagnetism.
So when are you going to produce that evidence?

If you can have E-fields in space, then objects in space will tend to act as anodes or cathodes.
Only if there is a current.

And before you know it, you are talking about a galactic circuit linking all of the components together.
For which you no evidence. What little evidence there is does not show anything remotely replacing gravity.

, these findings are either extremely exciting or incredibly threatening.
Or nonexistent or minor and completely overstated by you.

and that gravity is a side-effect of electromagnetism.
There is no evidence to support that claim. GR is an exceeding well supported theory.>>
Ethelred
4.5 / 5 (8) Jan 24, 2012
Before them was Hannes Alfven, and before him was Kristian Birkeland and Ralph Juergens.
None of them managed to do so. Neither have you. Why was Hannes's paper removed from the Electric sites? They went away after I used it show that a number claims by Yep(are you yep?) and those sites were false. Those claims also disappeared without any comment.

Willful ignorance is not a strategy for figuring out the most complex
I agree. Why do you engage in it?

Willful ignorance is not a strategy for figuring out the most complex
Read the three sites and found them wanting. Though I did see one admit that there own math for the energy of the Sun could not get more than a quarter of the energy the Sun actually produces. That went away too after I brought it up here.>>
Ethelred
4.7 / 5 (12) Jan 24, 2012
The way forward is to rethink what gravity actually is definitions matter.
The curvature of space-time works exceeding well in experiment after experiment. The entire GPS system uses it and it works every second of the day. Try explaining why it works in an EM gravity theory. Without that you don't have a theory of gravity.

Now watch the bullshit fly.

Ethelred
jsdarkdestruction
4.4 / 5 (8) Jan 25, 2012
thanks ethelred. I enjoyed reading your rebuttals. Well done as always. I knew as soon as i saw the article people would try to use it as a springboard for plasma/electric universe theory. hannes alfven is no doubt going to go on a nonsensical rant now about modern science and supposed dogma...just watch
kochevnik
1.4 / 5 (10) Jan 25, 2012
Experiments in vacuum tubes also demonstrated continuous hydrogen ion production in a vacuum tube.
Funny how there is no sign of such an experiment. Would you care to post a link to a RELIABLE paper on it. As opposed to a paper that just wings it and makes unsupported claims. Heck I haven't even seen the latter yet.

My dialect is American English. Yours is Crank.
Since you're so sure there's no paper, you'll no doubt be willing to wager say $100 on that, right? I mean, you're so brilliant and all...

You have been rebutted successfully many times.
Oh where exactly? I remember there was an anti-gravity effect in linear accelerators that had a standard interpretation. One is bound to look foolish in any case when quoting physicists working in classified areas. Other than that?
barakn
5 / 5 (3) Jan 25, 2012
The cosmic plasma models are being applied as if E-fields are oftentimes impossible, based upon an assumption that plasmas conduct like superconductors. -HandflappingAlfven

The fact that these spacecraft have instruments specifically designed to measure electrical fields demonstrates how you are mischaracterizing mainstream science.
Ethelred
4.5 / 5 (8) Jan 25, 2012
Since you're so sure there's no paper, you'll no doubt be willing to wager say $100 on that, right? I mean, you're so brilliant and all...
Since you think money bets will give you evidence just send me money. Or produce the evidence.

Learn how to read. I said I never saw one. YOU made the claim. Produce the paper.

Oh where exactly?
Right here on physorg.

I remember there was an anti-gravity effect in linear accelerators that had a standard interpretation.
I don't.

One is bound to look foolish in any case when quoting physicists working in classified areas. Other than that?
One is bound to look foolish claiming there is data they cannot produce.

Other than that?
That is for you to produce. Bullshit is all you have.

Ethelred
Anda
5 / 5 (3) Jan 25, 2012
Well done Ethelred.
Still searching ur paper Kochevnik?
jsdarkdestruction
5 / 5 (2) Jan 27, 2012
Kochevnik. we are all still waiting for that paper.......you running away with your tail between your legs doesnt bode well for your theory.