Auroras Provide some Key Information about the Physics of Energetic Processes in Space

Auroras Provide some Key Information about the Physics of Energetic Processes in Space

For the first time ever since its discovery in the 1960s, researchers have been able to describe an Aurora, physically.

Aurora is a natural light that can, predominantly, be seen in the skies of the high-latitude regions of the Earth. They are produced when charged particles (protons and electrons) from the solar wind and Magnetospheric Plasma enter the upper atmosphere due to the Earth’s magnetic field. These particles lose their energy as they ionize and excite the surrounding atmospheric constituents, which glow in different colors and complexity. Conventionally, precipitating protons gain electrons from the atmosphere and produce optical emissions. These type of auroras are generally observed at lower latitudes.

Recent developments have proved that auroras are much more than delightful sights. They offer vital information about the physical processes in space that cannot be observed directly from Earth. A new research showed that auroras offer new ways of understanding Physics of Explosive Energy Releases in space. The researchers from the University College London (UCL) and the University of Reading collaborated and remotely observed rapidly evolving aurora to figure out the reconfiguring of its source. Dr. Jonathan Rae, an Author of the study who is associated with the Space & Climate Physics Department of UCL, referred to that by saying,

Somewhere in the huge volume of space into which Earth’s magnetosphere stretches, this energy release occurs via instability which is really hard to pinpoint. They cause substorms whereby charged particles surf into the Earth’s atmosphere on electromagnetic waves, releasing large amounts of energy and lighting up the aurora. By studying auroras closely, we can map back to where in space the instabilities are occurring and study the physics that cause them. It’s much more efficient than trying to observe vast areas of space.

The researching team examined a large portion of the sky for their research, which allowed them to find the perfect substorm. It was located over Poker Flats and was detected on 18th September 2012. Scientists used the Multi-spectral Observatory Of Sensitive EM-CCDs (MOOSE) camera to track the aurora for 4 minutes while it moved towards the Northern Pole. Although it may seem shocking, this is a relatively longer duration for observing such an aurora. Therefore, researchers were able to gather a wealth of data.

The analysis of this data led to some important clues about the origin of the aurora in space and time. Initially, the aurora was in the form of a line of ‘Auroral Beads’, which grew exponentially in size and brightness along a particular arc. This is a sign of instability in space and the comparison of these detailed characteristics with the state of the art theory helped the researchers to narrow down the area of this uncertainty. Dr. Colin Forsyth, a Professor at the Department of Space and Climate Physics in UCL, explained that in the following words:

We’ve shown that it’s possible to only study aurora to find out where instabilities are in space, which has not been done before. Our method allows us to predict what the instability is and where it is in space. In fact, the region we’ve identified is incredibly small in space terms — only a small fraction of the volume of the Earth — and we hope to study it in more detail using spacecraft that pass through the area.

The study published in the journal ‘Nature Communications’ indicated that this is the first effort ever to physically analyze an event like aurora. Prior to that, scientists just described all the high energy events (including auroras) of our solar system but no physical evidence was collected. The study claims that it has opened up a new chapter as several theoretical models can be tested and improved on the basis of this finding. Dr. Clare Watt, a Co-author from the University of Reading, talked about that and said,

Importantly, our work has given scientists more physics to work with. A whole range of theoretical models can be tested and refined based on the physical characteristics we’ve captured.

Dr. Rae strengthened his ideas by suggesting that their findings can be used for other events of our solar system. In addition to that, he expressed hope that they intend to take a step further and discover the reasons which cause the instability in space.

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