Magnetic Portals Connect Sun and Earth

October 31, 2008
Magnetic Portals Connect Sun and Earth
An artist's concept of Earth's magnetic field connecting to the sun's--a.k.a. a "flux transfer event"--with a spacecraft on hand to measure particles and fields.

During the time it takes you to read this article, something will happen high overhead that until recently many scientists didn't believe in. A magnetic portal will open, linking Earth to the sun 93 million miles away. Tons of high-energy particles may flow through the opening before it closes again, around the time you reach the end of the page.

"It's called a flux transfer event or 'FTE,'" says space physicist David Sibeck of the Goddard Space Flight Center. "Ten years ago I was pretty sure they didn't exist, but now the evidence is incontrovertible."

Indeed, today Sibeck is telling an international assembly of space physicists at the 2008 Plasma Workshop in Huntsville, Alabama, that FTEs are not just common, but possibly twice as common as anyone had ever imagined.

Researchers have long known that the Earth and sun must be connected. Earth's magnetosphere (the magnetic bubble that surrounds our planet) is filled with particles from the sun that arrive via the solar wind and penetrate the planet's magnetic defenses. They enter by following magnetic field lines that can be traced from terra firma all the way back to the sun's atmosphere.

"We used to think the connection was permanent and that solar wind could trickle into the near-Earth environment anytime the wind was active," says Sibeck. "We were wrong. The connections are not steady at all. They are often brief, bursty and very dynamic."

Several speakers at the Workshop have outlined how FTEs form: On the dayside of Earth (the side closest to the sun), Earth's magnetic field presses against the sun's magnetic field. Approximately every eight minutes, the two fields briefly merge or "reconnect," forming a portal through which particles can flow. The portal takes the form of a magnetic cylinder about as wide as Earth. The European Space Agency's fleet of four Cluster spacecraft and NASA's five THEMIS probes have flown through and surrounded these cylinders, measuring their dimensions and sensing the particles that shoot through. "They're real," says Sibeck.

Now that Cluster and THEMIS have directly sampled FTEs, theorists can use those measurements to simulate FTEs in their computers and predict how they might behave. Space physicist Jimmy Raeder of the University of New Hampshire presented one such simulation at the Workshop. He told his colleagues that the cylindrical portals tend to form above Earth's equator and then roll over Earth's winter pole. In December, FTEs roll over the north pole; in July they roll over the south pole.

Sibeck believes this is happening twice as often as previously thought. "I think there are two varieties of FTEs: active and passive." Active FTEs are magnetic cylinders that allow particles to flow through rather easily; they are important conduits of energy for Earth's magnetosphere. Passive FTEs are magnetic cylinders that offer more resistance; their internal structure does not admit such an easy flow of particles and fields. (For experts: Active FTEs form at equatorial latitudes when the IMF tips south; passive FTEs form at higher latitudes when the IMF tips north.) Sibeck has calculated the properties of passive FTEs and he is encouraging his colleagues to hunt for signs of them in data from THEMIS and Cluster. "Passive FTEs may not be very important, but until we know more about them we can't be sure."

There are many unanswered questions: Why do the portals form every 8 minutes? How do magnetic fields inside the cylinder twist and coil? "We're doing some heavy thinking about this at the Workshop," says Sibeck.

Meanwhile, high above your head, a new portal is opening, connecting your planet to the sun.

Source: Science@NASA, by Dr. Tony Phillips

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Matter waves and quantum splinters

March 25, 2019

Physicists in the United States, Austria and Brazil have shown that shaking ultracold Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) can cause them to either divide into uniform segments or shatter into unpredictable splinters, depending ...

How tree diversity regulates invading forest pests

March 25, 2019

A national-scale study of U.S. forests found strong relationships between the diversity of native tree species and the number of nonnative pests that pose economic and ecological threats to the nation's forests.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

4.9 / 5 (15) Oct 31, 2008
8 minutes (and ~20 seconds) is also the time it takes light, or information, to travel from the sun to the earth or vice versa. Could there be some kind of natural action/reaction resonance occurring?

My guess is that some kind of EM force is turned on when the magnetic portal opens, and the sun doesn't feel the force until 8 minutes later. This may cause a small, localized perturbation of the Interplanetary Magnetic Field (in the Earth's radial direction), which takes another 8 minutes to reach the earth and manifests itself as the opening of a new magnetic portal. It's a 16 minute (and ~40 second) period, but the resonance could also allow for periodicity in a half-cycle.

4.8 / 5 (5) Oct 31, 2008
Ok, what's the amount of energy involved in this transferal?

Also, how do these vary with relation to sun spot activity?
5 / 5 (4) Oct 31, 2008
Simply amazing.
4 / 5 (3) Oct 31, 2008
Since we are now aware that it happens, how can we best benefit from this anomaly?
Oct 31, 2008
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
not rated yet Oct 31, 2008
so it's fast.
1.8 / 5 (10) Oct 31, 2008
4 / 5 (2) Nov 01, 2008
quite interesting!
2.7 / 5 (3) Nov 01, 2008
I wonder if the magnetic reconnection within Earth's magnetosphere on the day/night side of the Earth while it "rotates has anything to do with this.

or perhaps, if this effect has anything to do with neutrino annihilation as they are in transit, hmmm.
4.5 / 5 (4) Nov 01, 2008
You can watch a lot of the streaming particles and see a lot of the effects live at
where they have been showing the Sun earth connections from live data sources for years.
3.3 / 5 (9) Nov 01, 2008
electric universe ideas and proving quite accurate :)

They still have it arse over tit tho. Its not magnetic lines that change (they dont exist remember?) its plasma and double-layers that are changing, causing our theoretical lines to alter.

"How do magnetic fields inside the cylinder twist and coil?"

They dont, its classic behavior of plasma, and they are just measuring the magnetic fields created by the moving current and material.
4.2 / 5 (5) Nov 01, 2008
What affect does this have on climate models?

We haven't been told of the estimated energy transfer thats taking place. Climate models etc will need to take this additional energy reception into account.

Its not just HEAT and LIGHT that earth is receiving, its plasma energy too. Tons of it.
2.1 / 5 (10) Nov 01, 2008
Sub:Magnetic Flux Flow Tubes- SUN to EARTH
Welcome if you can contact me -East West Interaction- I can explain this phenomena through COSMOLOGY_VEDAS INTERLINKS- The subject becomes self-evident and can throw more light for further Research as well- Why not convene a conference and dialogue ?
Vidyardhi Nanduri
5 / 5 (3) Nov 01, 2008
Any indication that this is solely an Sun -> Earth interaction, in the direction sense, but also in speaking about the exclusivity of this relationship?
3.8 / 5 (6) Nov 01, 2008
A flux tube is equivalent to a wire carrying electric current.

The FTE is the equivalent of a "exploding double layer". OR a wire that too much current flows through and it burns out like a fuse, then the wire is "reconnected", but its not magnetism that is doing the reconnecting, its the electricity. The magnetic field just follows the electricity.
3.7 / 5 (3) Nov 02, 2008
Since we are now aware that it happens, how can we best benefit from this anomaly?

This is like asking how we can benefit from cellular respiration. Life on earth has evolved with this "anomaly" since it began. Just because science knows it's happening now doesn't change a thing. There is a direct line between sun and earth, and in turn, the sun and galactic center. The Mayans( and many others) knew this 2000 years ago.

5 / 5 (3) Nov 02, 2008
It would be interesting to know if this event occurred on other planets in our solar system and if so, what similarities and differences existed.
4 / 5 (2) Nov 03, 2008
I too wonder if this occurs for other "planets" in our solar system, and if so, to what degree? quite interesting
4.8 / 5 (4) Nov 03, 2008
It would be interesting to know if this event occurred on other planets in our solar system and if so, what similarities and differences existed.

I think it's safe to say that every planet is likely to experience SOMETHING similar to this. Honestly I have no idea of the relationship between a planet's magnetic moment and the energy transfer involved via the magnetic portals.

One of the weakest magnetic fields, Venus's, only has an induced magnetopause... though I'm certain it is still unknown how much energy from these events feed into the atmospheric systems, considering that we just learned of their existence on Earth.

Jupiter offers the other extreme, a strong, massive magnetosphere that can at times be filled with LOTS of energetic particles. It almost seems counter-intuitive to think more energy could be transferred into a stronger magnetic field, but who knows?

I can tell you that for planets with magnetic fields oriented opposite to that of the Earth's (our magnetic north pole lies at our "south" pole), "active" FTE's will occur when the IMF is oriented northwards, and "passive" FTE's for southwards. This is due to magnetic reconnection, as mentioned by another poster.
5 / 5 (3) Nov 03, 2008
FINALLY! Something to get our eyes away from the stupid presidential race!

This is truly exciting!
not rated yet Nov 04, 2008
Sexy, Same thing in a portable version. will be in the November Issue when it post here. http://memagazine...sues.cfm

Now I have to go take a cold shower.
1 / 5 (2) Nov 06, 2008
Anyone care to take a stab at how much power collection/generation potential available?

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.