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Earth Spews Plasma That Feeds Space Storms, Scientists Say

The periodic space storms that knock out satellites and power systems may not be entirely the sun’s fault after all.

Scientists say they have discovered that Earth spews fountains of electrified oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen and helium high above its poles and that these flows may contribute to electronics-disrupting storms.

Previously, scientists thought such disturbances came only from the solar wind, the flow of charged particles streaming from the sun.

New NASA images have provided a striking first look at Earth’s own gaseous flow.

From them, scientists are constructing a more complex picture in which the solar wind and terrestrial stream combine to wreak havoc, according to Thomas E. Moore, chief of the space plasma physics branch at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

He said solar energy drives the storms, but the flow from Earth may provide the particles that receive that energy and become little weapons.

Space storms can knock out electronics on spacecraft, alter the orbits of satellites and disrupt power systems across continents. A space storm on March 13, 1989, knocked out transformers and caused problems throughout North America.

The findings were presented Monday during the American Geophysical Union fall meeting, a gathering of 7,000 scientists.

Two instruments aboard NASA’s POLAR satellite, launched 10 months ago, made the previously invisible visible. That gave scientists their first peek at Earth’s plasmas, or electrified gases, above the poles.

“We had good hints from previous spacecraft that there were flows there,” said Mario Acuna of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “We have established reliably that these flows do exist.”

Moore said the huge fountains are spewing out plasma at 100,000 mph and at a rate of 50 tons a day.

Although some of the material is pushed out and escapes into space, some is blown back toward Earth by the solar wind.

He said it supplies enough material to create the nighttime auroras, the colorful Northern Lights.

Tags: research

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