AstroTalk Episode June 1, 2017

A Dance of Electrons in Space

3:09pm - 3:29pm

A strange or "bizarre" dance of electrons has been detected in Earth's magnetosphere. Electrons will travel in spiral patterns around magnetic filed lines, where there is a strong magnetic field. In weak magnetic fields, the electrons wag around in a free style motion. NASA has now uncovered what the electrons do in intermediate strength magnetic fields. The motion is a combination of spiraling and meandering, before the electrons are finally ejected into space. With this, large amounts of magnetic energy can be released. Scientists in NASA'S Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission (MMS) studied the electrons in these intermediate strength fields, and a process they call magnetic reconnection. Magnetic reconnection is thought to occur in the sun, where large amounts of energy that have been stored for days or hours, are released .
The magnetic field environment where the electrons’ motions were observed was uniquely created by magnetic reconnection, which caused a current sheet (through which the electrons travel) to be tightly confined by bunched-up magnetic fields. The electrons then travel in large spirals, before they are finally ejected, along with an enormous amount of stored magnetic energy. The new research will hopefully help the scientists better understand the role of electrons in reconnection, and how magnetic fields lose energy. Magnetic reconnection is an important process in the universe as a whole, and is thought to be responsible for the formation of some shock waves and cosmic rays. In this study, scientists are looking to gain a better understanding of what role electrons play in magnetic reconnection. Some of the most explosive releases of energy in the universe are thought to occur through magnetic reconnection. With this knowledge, scientists are gaining knowledge of our magnetic environment, and its affect on spacecraft and satellites. MMS obtained their data with a daring flight of 4 spacecraft through the Earth's magnetosphere.