Earth is a giant magnet, and the field that surrounds it, called the magnetosphere, is one of the major reasons life on our planet has been able to flourish.
But despite its crucial role in warding off cosmic radiation and atmospheric loss, there’s a lot we don’t know about the magnetosphere. That’s why in March 2015, NASA launched the Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission (MMS), a fleet of four spacecraft, to study its secrets.
The quartet is living up to that mandate, because it has now witnessed a never-before-seen event—magnetic reconnection, which is the energetic “snap” of crossed magnetic field lines, in the magnetosheath, a turbulent environment located tens of thousands of miles from Earth.
Described in a paper published on Wednesday in Nature, the discovery may not sound esoteric, but it is an instrumental step to untangling the mysteries of magnetism on our home world.
“In the plasma universe, there are two important phenomena: magnetic reconnection and turbulence,” said lead author Tai Phan, a senior fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, in a NASA statement. “This discovery bridges these two processes.”
While the paper will make a good read for magnetism buffs, the visualizations that NASA cooked up will appeal to anyone who appreciates trippy AF simulations. This explainer video, for instance, is chock full of otherworldly imagery, including an animation of the magnetosphere taking a veritable pelting from the solar wind, starting at 49 seconds.
There’s also this gorgeous model of the magnetosphere, depicted in blue, encased inside the chaotic maelstrom of the magnetosheath, shown in shades of Jupiter. It will really make you appreciate the safe planetary harbor provided by our magnetic force field.
But this mind-bending video might top them both, with its illustration of magnetic reconnection as flashes within a golden morass of field lines. It looks like something you’d see if you zoomed in on a T-1000 terminator.
As if the science delivered by the MMS spacecraft isn’t cool enough, NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio is creating quality art from it, too.
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