THEMIS satellite tracks electrical tornadoes in space

Apr 23, 2009 By Robert Sanders
Space tornadoes span a volume of space about the size of the Earth, and funnel hot ionized gas into the ionosphere, triggering bright auroras. (Andreas Keiling/UC Berkeley)

(PhysOrg.com) -- Earth-bound tornadoes are puny compared to "space tornadoes," which span a volume as large as Earth and produce electrical currents exceeding 100,000 amperes, according to new observations by a suite of five NASA space probes.

The probe cluster, called Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms (THEMIS), recorded the extent and power of these electrical funnels as the probes passed through them during their orbit of Earth. Ground measurements showed that the space tornadoes channel the into the ionosphere to spark bright and colorful auroras on Earth.

The findings were presented today at the general assembly of the European Geosciences Union (EGU) in Vienna, Austria.

Space tornadoes are rotating plasmas of hot, ionized gas flowing at speeds of more than a million miles per hour, far faster than the 200 m.p.h. winds of terrestrial tornadoes, according to Andreas Keiling, a research space physicist at the University of California, Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory.

Keiling works on THEMIS, which was built and is now operated by UC Berkeley. The five space probes were launched by NASA in February 2007 to solve a decades-long mystery about the origin of magnetic storms that power the Northern and Southern Lights

Both terrestrial and space tornadoes consist of funnel-shaped structures. Space tornadoes, however, generate huge amounts of electrical currents inside the funnel. These currents flow along twisted magnetic field lines from space into the ionosphere where they power several processes, most notably bright auroras such as the Northern Lights, Keiling said.

While these intense currents do not cause any direct harm to humans, on the ground they can damage man-made structures, such as power transformers.

The THEMIS spacecraft observed these tornadoes, or "flow vortices," at a distance of about 40,000 miles from Earth. Simultaneous measurements by THEMIS ground observatories confirmed the tornadoes' connection to the ionosphere.

Keiling's colleagues include Karl-Heinz Glassmeier of the Institute for Geophysics and Extraterrestrial Physics (IGEP, TU) in Braunschweig, Germany, and Olaf Amm of the Finnish Meteorological Institute.

Provided by University of California - Berkeley (news : web)

Explore further: Amazing raw Cassini images from this week

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

NASA Satellites Discover What Powers Northern Lights

Jul 24, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- Researchers using a fleet of five NASA satellites have discovered that explosions of magnetic energy a third of the way to the moon power substorms that cause sudden brightenings and rapid movements of the ...

Northern lights research enters final frontier

Jan 12, 2007

An international team of scientists -- including physicists from the University of Calgary -- will begin gathering the most detailed information yet about the ever-changing northern lights, as a multi-year research project ...

THEMIS probes view auroral substorms, bowshock explosions

Dec 11, 2007

Five satellites launched last February to probe magnetic storms around the Earth will move into prime observing position next month, but they already have produced important new information on the interactions ...

Scientist creates 'micro-tornadoes'

May 14, 2007

Meteorologists concerned about a possible worldwide intensification of tornado activity may now be able to study tornadoes in the lab.

Scientists solve 30-year-old aurora borealis mystery

Jul 24, 2008

UCLA space scientists and colleagues have identified the mechanism that triggers substorms in space; wreaks havoc on satellites, power grids and communications systems; and leads to the explosive release of ...

University of Alberta space research to solve aurora mystery

Jan 10, 2007

On February 15, NASA will launch the largest number of scientific satellites ever sent into orbit aboard a single rocket. A handful of Alberta scientists will be at Kennedy Space Center watching and waiting. For Dr. Ian Mann ...

Recommended for you

SpaceX rocket explodes during test flight

6 hours ago

A SpaceX rocket exploded in midair during a test flight, though no one was injured, as the company seeks to develop a spacecraft that can return to Earth and be used again.

Amazing raw Cassini images from this week

Aug 22, 2014

When Saturn is at its closest to Earth, it's three-quarters of a billion miles away—or more than a billion kilometers! That makes these raw images from the ringed planet all the more remarkable.

Europe launches two navigation satellites

Aug 22, 2014

Two satellites for Europe's rival to GPS were lifted into space on Friday to boost the Galileo constellation to six orbiters of a final 30, the European Space Agency (ESA) said.

SpaceX gets 10-year tax exemption for Texas site

Aug 22, 2014

Cameron County commissioners have agreed to waive 10 years of county taxes as part of an agreement bringing the world's first commercial site for orbital rocket launches to the southernmost tip of Texas.

Voyager map details Neptune's strange moon Triton

Aug 22, 2014

(Phys.org) —NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft gave humanity its first close-up look at Neptune and its moon Triton in the summer of 1989. Like an old film, Voyager's historic footage of Triton has been "restored" ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

LuckyBrandon
not rated yet Apr 23, 2009
Do theses vortices have suction like an earth based tornado as well?
If htey do, we may have just read the easiest way to get into space from the ground....providing of course we can build something that doesnt get obliderated by supposed "million miles per hour" wind and the electrical surges.