The Moon and the Magnetotail

Apr 17, 2008
The Moon and the Magnetotail
The Moon's orbit crosses Earth's magnetotail.

Behold the full Moon. Ancient craters and frozen lava seas lie motionless under an airless sky of profound quiet. It's a slow-motion world where even a human footprint may last millions of years. Nothing ever seems to happen there. Right?

Wrong. NASA-supported scientists have realized that something does happen every month when the Moon gets a lashing from Earth's magnetic tail.

"Earth's magnetotail extends well beyond the orbit of the Moon and, once a month, the Moon orbits through it," says Tim Stubbs, a University of Maryland scientist working at the Goddard Space Flight Center. "This can have consequences ranging from lunar 'dust storms' to electrostatic discharges."

Yes, Earth does have a magnetic tail. It is an extension of the same familiar magnetic field we experience when using a Boy Scout compass. Our entire planet is enveloped in a bubble of magnetism, which springs from a molten dynamo in Earth's core. Out in space, the solar wind presses against this bubble and stretches it, creating a long "magnetotail" in the downwind direction: diagram.

Anyone can tell when the Moon is inside the magnetotail. Just look: "If the Moon is full, it is inside the magnetotail," says Stubbs. "The Moon enters the magnetotail three days before it is full and takes about six days to cross and exit on the other side."

It is during those six days that strange things can happen.

During the crossing, the Moon comes in contact with a gigantic "plasma sheet" of hot charged particles trapped in the tail. The lightest and most mobile of these particles, electrons, pepper the Moon's surface and give the Moon a negative charge.

On the Moon's dayside this effect is counteracted to a degree by sunlight: UV photons knock electrons back off the surface, keeping the build-up of charge at relatively low levels. But on the nightside, in the cold lunar dark, electrons accumulate and voltages can climb to hundreds or thousands of volts.

Walking across the dusty charged-up lunar terrain, astronauts may find themselves crackling with electricity like a sock pulled out of a hot dryer. Touching another astronaut, a doorknob, a piece of sensitive electronics—any of these simple actions could produce an unwelcome zap. "Proper grounding is strongly recommended," advises Stubbs.

The ground, meanwhile, may leap into the sky. There is compelling evidence (see, e.g., the Surveyor 7 image below) that fine particles of moondust, when sufficiently charged-up, actually float above the lunar surface. This could create a temporary nighttime atmosphere of dust ready to blacken spacesuits, clog machinery, scratch faceplates (moondust is very abrasive) and generally make life difficult for astronauts.

Stranger still, moondust might gather itself into a sort of diaphanous wind. Drawn by differences in global charge accumulation, floating dust would naturally fly from the strongly-negative nightside to the weakly-negative dayside. This "dust storm" effect would be strongest at the Moon's terminator, the dividing line between day and night.

Much of this is pure speculation, Stubbs cautions. No one can say for sure what happens on the Moon when the magnetotail hits, because no one has been there at the crucial time. "Apollo astronauts never landed on a full Moon and they never experienced the magnetotail."

The best direct evidence comes from NASA's Lunar Prospector spacecraft, which orbited the Moon in 1998-99 and monitored many magnetotail crossings. During some crossings, the spacecraft sensed big changes in the lunar nightside voltage, jumping "typically from -200 V to -1000 V," says Jasper Halekas of UC Berkeley who has been studying the decade-old data.

"It is important to note," says Halekas, "that the plasma sheet (where all the electrons come from) is a very dynamic structure. The plasma sheet is in a constant state of motion, flapping up and down all the time. So as the Moon orbits through the magnetotail, the plasma sheet can sweep across it over and over again. Depending on how dynamic things are, we can encounter the plasma sheet many times during a single pass through the magnetotail with encounters lasting anywhere from minutes to hours or even days."

"As a result, you can imagine how dynamic the charging environment on the Moon is. The Moon can be just sitting there in a quiet region of the magnetotail and then suddenly all this hot plasma goes sweeping by causing the nightside potential to spike to a kilovolt. Then it drops back again just as quickly."

The roller coaster of charge would be at its most dizzying during solar and geomagnetic storms. "That is a very dynamic time for the plasma sheet and we need to study what happens then," he says.

What happens then? Next-generation astronauts are going to find out. NASA is returning to the Moon in the decades ahead and plans to establish an outpost for long-term lunar exploration. It turns out they'll be exploring the magnetotail, too.

Source: Science@NASA, by Dr. Tony Phillips

Explore further: NASA spacecraft nears historic dwarf planet arrival

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Emerging world drives cheap smartphone boom

28 minutes ago

Phone and Internet firms are rolling out cheaper handsets and may turn to hot-air balloons to boost network coverage in developing countries, where sales of smartphones are booming.

Why don't we search for different life?

38 minutes ago

If we really want to find life on other worlds, why do we keep looking for life based on carbon and water? Why don't we look for the stuff that's really different?

Recommended for you

OSIRIS catches glimpse of Rosetta's shadow

1 hour ago

Several days after Rosetta's close flyby of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 14 February 2015, images taken on this day by OSIRIS, the scientific imaging system on board, have now been downlinked to Earth. ...

Kamikaze comet loses its head

2 hours ago

Like coins, most comet have both heads and tails. Occasionally, during a close passage of the Sun, a comet's head will be greatly diminished yet still retain a classic cometary outline. Rarely are we left ...

NASA spacecraft nears historic dwarf planet arrival

20 hours ago

NASA's Dawn spacecraft has returned new images captured on approach to its historic orbit insertion at the dwarf planet Ceres. Dawn will be the first mission to successfully visit a dwarf planet when it enters ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

zevkirsh
not rated yet Apr 17, 2008
lunar regolith is just another reason to skip the moon and just go to mars.
in fact, there's no way nasa's budgets won't be stripped of necessary funding to go to the moon. it's just a matter of time.
Jayem
not rated yet Apr 18, 2008
The Moon has to be our first objective over Mars, as going their will give us the necessary technical and socio-adaptive skills that we'll need for living on another planet. Going to Mars first would be more cost-effective in the long run, but more important of all, may end up costing lives.
John -- www.moonposter.ie
SDMike
not rated yet Apr 24, 2008
Could the "tail" be use as a source of electrical energy?

Don't worry about going to the moon. Obama has stated that he will take man-in-space funding from nasa and use it for a federal 0-5 indoctrination program for US children. baldwinparkdemocrat.blogspot.com/2008/02/barack-obamas-education-plan.html

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.