Australian student confirms that giant plasma tubes are floating above Earth

Australian CAASTRO team spot huge Plasma tube structures, that are filled with charged particles from the Sun, to be encircling the Earth.

For the very first time in history, Australian astronomers have successfully given evidence that the giant plasma tubes are drifting over Earth, thus mapping and confirming the existence of tubular plasma structures in the inner layers of Earth’s magnetosphere which was predicted by scientists for over last 60 years.

Cleo Loi is a student of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO) and the School of Physics at the University of Sydney. She has been working on this research as a part of her undergraduate thesis and is the lead author of this award winning research paper which was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. Cleo Loi et al has invented a three dimensional way to view the Earth’s magnetosphere.

Loi said: “For over 60 years, scientists believed these structures existed but by imaging them for the first time, we’ve provided visual evidence that they are really there.”

Basically, Sun is constantly emitting charged particles or ionized particles towards Earth. Scientists believe Earth is surrounded by complex magnetic field known as magnetosphere (that protects life on Earth from any damage). When these ionized particles approach Earth their path gets diverted due to which some of the particles may get deflected while some may be funneled towards the pole of Earth resulting in a spectacular array of light, due to the interaction between the magnetic fields and the eruption of gas from these charged particles, thus leading to a display known as ‘aurora’.

Earth’s protective magnetosphere further comprises of ionosphere and plasmasphere. The innermost being ionosphere and the layer above that is plasmasphere. Though not much is known about these complex structures and the research work is still under progress; however scientists believe that these are embedded with a plasma structures which are in the form of tubes and various other strange shapes.

The ionosphere does interfere with satellite navigation systems as well as it affects the images that are received by the radio telescopes hence a detailed study of this layer is a must.

By using the Murchinson Widefield Array (MWA), a radio telescope in the Western Australian desert, Loi probed these regions and ultimately landed on discovering the visual evidences of the 60 year old theory of tubular plasma structures drifting around the Earth.

Loi said: “The discovery of the structures is important because they cause unwanted signal distortions that could, as one example, affect our civilian and military satellite-based navigation systems. So we need to understand them.”

A forerunner of Square Kilometer Array (SKA), MWA consists of 128 antennae that are spread over a huge area of three kilometers which is almost 2 miles.

In her research study, Loi attempted to achieve a vision similar to binocular by splitting the western ends of the array from the eastern ends thus making it possible to get a three dimensional view of the magnetosphere.

Usually when the MWA is used for astronomical work, with a three kilometer baseline it cannot give the required parallax effect that is essential to get the in-depth view. However, during this research the situation was entirely different as the astronomers were looking close to Earth.

During her study, Loi was able to map a series of high and low density plasma tubes that connected the ionosphere and plasmasphere,  in addition these tubes were running parallel to the magnetic field. Says Loi: “We measured their position to be about 600 kilometres [373 miles] above the ground, in the upper ionosphere, and they appear to be continuing upwards into the plasmasphere. This is around where the neutral atmosphere ends, and we are transitioning to the plasma of outer space.”

Further it was seen that with time the tubes are moving slowly hence a changing interference effect has been experienced by the telescopes.

While speaking to IFLScience, Loi said that earlier researchers have been successful in limited probing into the ionosphere using Very Large Array, which is some other type of radio telescope; however applying parallax and getting a visual evidence is something totally new and has never been previously applied to the problem.

Loi said: “People theorized something like this from observations of a type of very low frequency electromagnetic wave. We can detect lightning from another hemisphere and people concluded there must be plasma tubes guiding the signal. It’s a very indirect conclusion, and no one had much idea what these tubes were like.”

For her breakthrough research, Cleo Loi has been awarded the 2015 Bok Prize of the Astronomical Society of Australia.

Loi has mentioned that it was amazing to visualize the giant plasma tubes using MWA’s enormous 30° field. Loi further envisages that the SKA is used in future to study the ionosphere and hopes that the publicity of her research would definitely be successful in bringing about this major change.

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