Key takeaways

  • Earth’s magnetic field creates waves that sound like a haunting melody during solar storms.
  • Solar storms, caused by charged particles from the sun, significantly alter these magnetic waves.
  • The frequency and complexity of Earth’s “song” increase dramatically when hit by solar storms.
  • These waves influence the Earth’s bow shock and magnetic fields, affecting energy flow to the surface.
  • Research on these waves helps us understand space weather, crucial for protecting technology.

Data from ESA’s Cluster mission have given a recording of Earth’s eerie “song” when battered by a solar storm.

The song is composed of waves generated in the Earth’s magnetic field as a result of the storm impact. The storm is actually the explosion of electrically charged particles from the sun’s atmosphere.

The song is composed of waves generated in the Earth’s magnetic field as a result of the storm impact. The storm is actually the explosion of electrically charged particles from the sun’s atmosphere.

Cluster is made up of four spacecraft that orbit Earth in formation to investigate our planet’s magnetic environment and its impact with the solar wind, which is a steady flow of particles emitted by the sun into the Solar System.

Cluster is made up of four spacecraft that orbit Earth in formation to investigate our planet’s magnetic environment and its impact with the solar wind, which is a steady flow of particles emitted by the sun into the Solar System.

Cluster is made up of four spacecraft that orbit Earth in formation to investigate our planet’s magnetic environment and its impact with the solar wind, which is a steady flow of particles emitted by the sun into the Solar System.

“Our study reveals that solar storms profoundly modify the foreshock region,” Lucile explains.

When the frequency of these magnetic waves are converted into auditory signals, they produce an unsettling melody that sounds more like the sound effects from a science fiction film than a natural phenomena.

When there is no solar storm, the song has a lower pitch and is less complicated, with only one frequency dominating the oscillation. When a solar storm hits, the wave’s frequency is roughly doubled, with the specific frequency of the ensuing waves determined by the storm’s magnetic field intensity.

“It’s like the storm is changing the tuning of the foreshock,” Lucile explains.

And it doesn’t end there; not only does the wave’s frequency alter, but it also becomes far more complicated than the single frequency present during quiet times. When the storm reaches the foreshock, the wave dissipates into a complicated network of higher frequencies.

Computer simulations of the foreshock, using a model called Vlasiator created at the University of Helsinki, show the complex wave structure that develops during solar storms.

The alterations in the foreshock have the potential to influence how the solar storm propagates to the Earth’s surface. Although it is unclear how this mechanism works, it is apparent that the energy released by waves in the foreshock cannot escape into space because the waves are driven towards Earth by the impending solar storm.

Before reaching our atmosphere, the waves meet another barrier: the bow shock, a magnetic region of space that slows down solar wind particles before they clash with Earth’s magnetic field. The collision of magnetic waves changes the behavior of the bow shock, perhaps altering how it processes the energy of the approaching solar storm.

Behind the bow shock, Earth’s magnetic fields begin to vibrate at the frequency of the waves, helping to convey the magnetic disturbance all the way to the ground. It is a quick process, with the wave formed by the foreshock lasting around ten minutes before reaching the earth.

Lucile and colleagues are currently investigating how these complicated waves are formed.

“We always expected a change in frequency but not the level of complexity in the wave,” the researcher says.

Solar storms are part of the space weather. While the solar wind is always blowing, explosive releases of energy near the sun’s surface cause turbulence and gusts, which eventually lead to solar storms.

Understanding space weather has become increasingly vital to humanity as a result of the damage that solar storms may inflict to sensitive electronics and technology both on Earth and in space. It is now more vital than ever to understand how space weather disturbances such as solar storms propagate through the Solar System and down to Earth, and ESA’s planned Solar Orbiter mission, set to launch in February 2020, will make significant contributions to these inquiries.

This new scientific study, based on the long-lived Cluster mission, adds to that knowledge while also playing a wider role in our understanding of the cosmos. Magnetic fields are ubiquitous, therefore the complicated interplay witnessed in Earth’s foreshock might occur in a range of cosmic contexts, including exoplanets circling near to their parent star, which are engulfed in high magnetic fields.

“This is an excellent example of how Cluster continues to extend our knowledge of the sun-Earth connection, even years after the original data was obtained,” says Philippe Escoubet, ESA Cluster Project Scientist.

“The results take us deeper into the details of fundamental magnetic interactions that take place across the universe.”

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