Earth is protected by a plasma shield from the high-energy solar activity and powerful solar outbursts. The plasma shield is generated by the Earth’s magnetic field, which originates within the Earth’s core and stretches out into space, where it meets up with the solar wind and blocks the worse effects of solar storms, protecting all life on Earth, as well as our telecommunications systems.
How was the plasma shield discovered?
According to research conducted by NASA and MIT astronomers, they have discovered a process that strengthens the shielding effect of the Earth’s magnetic field. It’s a shield made up of cold, dense plasma.
The astronomers noticed a plume of low-energy particles of plasma that is located where the two magnetic fields meet up. This plasma, which is dense and cold, counters both the negative effects of the magnetic reconnection between the magnetic fields of the sun and our planet and also the devastating effects that solar storms from the sun could have on our electrical grid, telecommunications system, and all life on Earth.
According to John Foster, the associate director of MIT’s Haystack Observatory, the magnetic filed generated by the Earth’s core “field protects life on the surface from the full impact of these solar outbursts.” The plasma shield helps to slow down the rate and impact of the “large, violent storms” which can result when the magnetic energy from the sun leaks through.
The plasmas, in other words, “slow down the reconnection process,” as Foster said. By doing this, the plasma shield protects Earth “so the impact of the sun on the Earth is less violent.” Charged particles let in by solar storms can lead to geomagnetic storms and radio blackouts, disrupting our power grid and telecommunications systems.
Foster and his team were able to analyze the plasma plumes generated by the Earth’s magnetic core through monitoring and analyzing distortions in radio signals.
By using over 1,000 receivers on Earth that gather radio signals from GPS satellites, the astronomers created maps of the plasma plumes.
Foster went to NASA to collaborate with them and learn if the occurrence of spikes, or plumes, in the plasma field were related to the severity of solar storms.
NASA confirmed that the plasma plumes were directly related to a reduction in the strength of solar storms. According to Foster, the plasma shield “slows down reconnection,” and added “it’s a recirculation process.”
Another author of the study describes the plasma shield as being like a “magnetic bubble.” The plasma shield works to both deflect and absorb charged solar particles the sun gives off, and it pushes back to deflect the sun’s powerful magnetic storms something like a comic book super hero would against an evil super villain.
What can happen when too much solar energy breaks through the plasma shield?
In January, an X-class solar flare resulted in enough space radiation that a mission to resupply the Orbital Sciences’ International Space Station was delayed.
Historically speaking, one of the most famous cases of charged solar particles breaking through and disrupting communications on Earth is what’s come to be called the “Carrington Event.” That occurred in 1859, when an extremely large solar storm broke through the Earth’s plasma shield and telegram wires were set on fire. Another very famous occurrence was in 1989, when a powerful solar storm caused Quebec’s power grid to suffer temporary outages.
The astronomers relate their findings in a study published in Science, and you can read about how the plasma shield surrounding Earth protects it from the sun in greater detail there.
Written by: Douglas Cobb