“Spacequakes: Dodging Plasma Bullets”

Posted on July 15, 2013


There’s a storm brewing in space. Not the kind that floods rivers, drops hailstones, or snatches up houses in Kansas, but the kind that messes with your cell reception. We know about it thanks to new information from THEMIS. Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms, launched by NASA in 2007, is an investigatory mission that focuses on auroras in space.

THEMIS recently picked up on never-before-seen aurora substorm activity within Earth’s magnetic field. The magnetic field surrounding Earth is generated by a combination of the electrical current flowing in the planet’s molten iron core and Earth’s relative rotation. The magnetic field protects the planet from particles in solar winds, and from solar flare-ups.  When we look at the aurora borealis, for example, (a.k.a. the northern lights), we are looking at our magnetic field in action. The sun sometimes emits massive gas clouds called a CMEs, or coronal mass ejections. When they collide with the magnetic field, lights illuminate the skies through our ionosphere, making for gorgeous and eerie interplays of color, brightness, and shape.

“Spacequake” might sound like a long lost Kraftwerk album, but we’re actually talking about tremors in Earth’s magnetic field. These spacequakes originate in space, but they can potentially impact Earth’s surface weather and atmosphere if they reach an approximate magnitude 5 or 6. Spacequakes originate at Earth’s magnetic field’s tail. When solar winds flare, Earth’s magnetic field is stretched out, and solar wind plasma trapped within the magnetic field is flung toward Earth like a slingshot load. Thus the nickname “plasma bullets.” Once inside Earth’s geomagnetic field–the magnetic field within Earth’s orbit–the plasma bullets ricochet within the magnetic bands and quickly lose momentum.

THEMIS is investigating this newly discovered phenomenon more closely to see if plasma bullets are as harmful to Earth as the name would suggest. For now it is only known that they can cause a disruption in GPS and other satellite communication. So next time your cell phone call is dropped, duck! You may be dodging plasma bullets!

Kiped from the archives of the SyFy channel’s IdeaLab Blog for the TV show Eureka. Well kinda kiped, since I wrote it to begin with. Edited by Tiffany Lee Brown, without whom I’d be stuck in the land of curly quotes.

Posted in: science, writing