Swarm measurements of Earth’s magnetic field from June 2014. Blue areas show where it has weakened.
Image credit: NASA/SDO/AIA Consortium
5 Ways the Solar Wind Will Blow You Away
We all know the sun is a powerful thing. It's the center of our solar system, keeping all the planets in orbit, and it sustains life here on Earth. But the sun affects objects in our solar system in many more ways. One not-so-obvious way is through the solar wind. The solar wind is a continuous flow of charged particles from the sun that are blasted through interplanetary space. Here are five ways the solar wind affects some celestial bodies in our solar system.
WATCH VIDEO: SDO Captures Eruptions on Sun
Image credit: Boston University
Planets Shake Their Tail Feathers
Thanks to the solar wind, and solar radiation, Mercury can be seen dragging along a comet-esque tail. Solar radiation causes sodium atoms to be removed from Mercury's surface. The solar wind then whips them up and sends them into a tail, trailing the planet. The sun has had a similar effect on Mars.
Image credit: ESA
Venus' Bleeding Atmosphere Venus' atmosphere is bleeding away thanks to the solar wind. Earth's atmosphere is held in place by a magnetic field. Unfortunately for Venus, it doesn’t have the luxury of a magnetic field, and its atmosphere is slowly being blown away into space.
Image: The Japanese "Interplanetary Kite-craf
Interplanetary Windsurfing The solar wind and solar radiation generate pressure, and thus can propel objects through space like wind on Earth propels a sailboat across water. So if one were to build a large, strong, yet lightweight sail, this pressure from the sun could actually be harnessed to navigate space. And you'd be able to fly on a low budget because you wouldn't use fuel. In May 2010, Japan launched a solar sail prototype intended to coast through space by harnessing solar radiation pressure.
Image credit: NASA/Miloslav Druckmuller (Brno
Wiggling Comets As comets travel the cosmos, their tails can be seen wiggling. They don't do this on their own accord however, or even because they're happy. Changes in the speed of the solar wind causes the comet tails to change positions, giving them a "wiggling" effect.
Image credit: NASA/SDO
Messing with Earth The solar wind isn't just a breeze blowing about in space. Carried within it are super-fast energy streams. This energy creates intense magnetic fields, which impact the outskirts of our atmosphere. It can even be so rude as to knock out our communications networks and disrupt our satellites. Related Discovery News content: Incoming! The Sun Unleashes CME at Earth Impact! Coronal Mass Ejection Hits Earth Is the Sun Emitting a Mystery Particle? Why Should YOU Care About the Sun? The Sun's Coronal Rain Puzzle Solved
The North Pole is moving. Not the geographic axis around which Earth spins, of course, but rather its magnetic pole, the north end of which is slowly but steadily wandering across the Arctic Ocean toward Siberia. Scientists have known about our planet’s shifting magnetic field for a long time, since at least 1904 — and today we now have a “Swarm” of satellites investigating its many inconsistencies from orbit.
Launched in November 2013, ESA’s Swarm mission consists of three 9-meter satellites orbiting the planet at altitudes of 300-530 km (186-330 miles). Their goal is to monitor Earth’s dynamic magnetic field, observing its changes over a period of four years.
The data gathered by the Swarm satellites will help scientists better understand how our magnetic field works, how it’s influenced by solar activity, and why large parts of it are found to be weakening.
Because the magnetic field is our planet’s first line of defense against radiation from both the sun and deep space, understanding what makes it tick is very important.
The first high-definition measurements from Swarm have been made and what’s become apparent are weakening regions within the core-generated magnetic field over the western hemisphere, while parts of the southern Indian Ocean show strengthening fields.
Swarm measurements also confirm the march of the magnetic north pole toward Russia.
“These initial results demonstrate the excellent performance of Swarm,” said Rune Floberghagen, ESA’s Swarm Mission Manager. “With unprecedented resolution, the data also exhibit Swarm’s capability to map fine-scale features of the magnetic field.”
Watch a video of the Swarm compass findings below:
It’s known that Earth’s magnetic poles occasionally reverse, a process that takes several thousand years to complete and creates a much more complex and unpredictable — but still protective — field during the interim. And while the weakening observed by Swarm could be a sign of a polarity reversal on the way, it’s an event that’s probably still thousands of years away.
Meanwhile, missions like Swarm will allow us to better understand the magnetic field we have today, in order to understand what it will do in the future.
Read more about Earth’s moving magnetic field here, and find out what would happen during a magnetic reversal here.