Even in Near-Earth Space, Bad Weather Leads to Bad Traffic

Ongoing research conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, has established the first ever observational maps of plasma transport in Near-Earth space, thanks to the Van Allen Probes mission.

New research published in Geophysical Research Letters extends this, analyzing the effect of space weather on plasma transport. The findings are similar to what one would expect in on-the-ground traffic: the worse the weather conditions, the slower the traffic flows (in space, this is the case below an altitude of about 13 000 km = 8 000 miles).

Yet, there is no rain or snow in space … so how does weather manifest?!

The Sun constantly emits both particles and energy, but it can be the scene of violent phenomena. While most of the particles and energy emitted by the Sun and flowing towards Earth are deflected by the Earth’s magnetic field, some of them can be transmitted to Near-Earth space.

  • On the plus side: this can lead to the appearance of magnificent auroras.
  • On the minus side: this can pose a hazard for human activities, because space-borne and ground-based technological systems can be affected.

Just like “weather” refers to the state of the Earth’s atmosphere, the term “space weather” is the used to describe conditions in space. And just like “weather” conditions affect traffic flows of cars and trucks, we expected that “space weather” would affect the flow of ions and electrons in space, although we were not sure how. For the first time, we could answer that question.

It is often assumed that the Sun directly affects near-Earth space. Our study highlights the important role of go-between played by the ionosphere. Our findings offer new context to existing theories and they provide a starting point to better monitoring space weather.

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