Earth’s magnetic field / magnetosphere, stretches from the planet’s core out into space, where it meets the solar wind, a stream of charged particles emitted by the sun. The magnetosphere acts as a shield to protect Earth from this high-energy solar activity.
This field comes into contact with the sun’s magnetic field — a process called “magnetic reconnection” — powerful electrical currents from the sun can stream into Earth’s atmosphere, whipping up geomagnetic storms and space weather phenomena that can affect high-altitude aircraft, as well as astronauts on the International Space Station.
Scientists at MIT and NASA have identified a process in Earth’s magnetosphere that reinforces its shielding effect, keeping incoming solar energy at bay.
Combining observations from the ground and in space, the team observed a plume of low-energy plasma particles that essentially hitches a ride along magnetic field lines — streaming from Earth’s lower atmosphere up to the point, tens of thousands of kilometers above the surface, where the planet’s magnetic field connects with that of the sun. In this region, which the scientists call the “merging point,” the presence of cold, dense plasma slows magnetic reconnection, blunting the sun’s effects on Earth.
“The Earth’s magnetic field protects life on the surface from the full impact of these solar outbursts,” says John Foster, associate director of MIT’s Haystack Observatory. “Reconnection strips away some of our magnetic shield and lets energy leak in, giving us large, violent storms. These plasmas get pulled into space and slow down the reconnection process, so the impact of the sun on the Earth is less violent.”
Foster and his colleagues publish their results in this week’s issue of Science. The team includes Philip Erickson, principal research scientist at Haystack Observatory, as well as Brian Walsh and David Sibeck at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
Mapping Earth’s Magnetic Shield:
For more than a decade, scientists at Haystack Observatory have studied plasma plume phenomena using a ground-based technique called GPS-TEC, in which scientists analyze radio signals transmitted from GPS satellites to more than 1,000 receivers on the ground. Large space-weather events, such as geomagnetic storms, can alter the incoming radio waves — a distortion that scientists can use to determine the concentration of plasma particles in the upper atmosphere. Using this data, they can produce two-dimensional global maps of atmospheric phenomena, such as plasma plumes.
These ground-based observations have helped shed light on key characteristics of these plumes, such as how often they occur, and what makes some plumes stronger than others. But as Foster notes, this two-dimensional mapping technique gives an estimate only of what space weather might look like in the low-altitude regions of the magnetosphere. To get a more precise, three-dimensional picture of the entire magnetosphere would require observations directly from space.
Toward this end, Foster approached Walsh with data showing a plasma plume emanating from Earth’s surface, and extending up into the lower layers of the magnetosphere, during a moderate solar storm in January 2013. Walsh checked the date against the orbital trajectories of three spacecraft that have been circling the Earth to study auroras in the atmosphere.
As it turns out, all three spacecraft crossed the point in the magnetosphere at which Foster had detected a plasma plume from the ground. The team analyzed data from each spacecraft, and found that the same cold, dense plasma plume stretched all the way up to where the solar storm made contact with Earth’s magnetic field.
A River Of Plasma:
Foster says the observations from space validate measurements from the ground. What’s more, the combination of space- and ground-based data give a highly detailed picture of a natural defensive mechanism in Earth’s magnetosphere.
“This higher-density, cold plasma changes about every plasma physics process it comes in contact with,” Foster says. “It slows down reconnection, and it can contribute to the generation of waves that, in turn, accelerate particles in other parts of the magnetosphere. So it’s a recirculation process, and really fascinating.”
Foster likens this plume phenomenon to a “river of particles,” and says it is not unlike the Gulf Stream, a powerful ocean current that influences the temperature and other properties of surrounding waters. On an atmospheric scale, he says, plasma particles can behave in a similar way, redistributing throughout the atmosphere to form plumes that “flow through a huge circulation system, with a lot of different consequences.”
“What these types of studies are showing is just how dynamic this entire system is,” Foster adds.
According to multiple reports, Facebook is in talks to buy a drone maker whose solar-powered aircraft could operate as high-altitude wireless hot spots, circling in the stratosphere for years without refueling. That may seem far-fetched, but it’s not entirely surprising in the context of today’s online rivalries. Witness Google, Facebook’s chief nemesis, which is already running its own high-speed internet service down here on the earth — the ever-expanding Google Fiber — not to mention the balloons it’s building to bring internet access to more remote locations from high in the sky.
In revealing that Facebook is exploring a $60 million acquisition of drone maker Titan Aerospace, Techcrunch reports that the deal is a way of giving wings to Mark Zuckerberg’s Interneth.org initiative, another effort to bring the net to those parts of the globe that are still offline. Zuckerberg describes this as a philanthropic effort — and it may well be. But it’s certainly in Facebook’s interest as a business to expand the reach of the internet, just as it is for Google.
Google and Facebook are primarily in the business of running web services — and delivering ads on those services. But if these two public companies are to keep expanding, as their shareholders crave, that growth may ultimately depend on the spread of the internet itself. The more people who have access to the internet, the more potential Facebook and Google users.
In some respects, this gives the two companies more incentive to grow the net themselves rather than waiting for the old-school ISPs of the world — and they have to money to grow it. At the very least, drones as a way to deliver internet access makes more sense than drones as a way to deliver toothpaste.
Leaving Earthbound ISPs Behind
Last year, Google began testing Project Loon balloons over New Zealand. The project is an offshoot of the secretive Google X skunkworks, which takes seemingly crazy ideas (self-driving cars, Google Glass) and tries to make them real. Much like Facebook, as it prepares to bring the internet to the hinterlands, Google gives this effort an altruistic veneer. But it’s worth pointing out that this is the company’s second internet service initiative.
The first is Google Fiber, the search giant’s ultra-high-speed gambit to become an internet service provider by laying its own cables in the ground. A few U.S. cities already have the promised 1-gigabit-per-second service, and Google recently announced it’s exploring plans to bring Fiber to many more. The company says it wants to see what kind of civic good can come to cities wired up with even faster internet speeds. But establishing such an infrastructure also pushes telecom and cable companies to offer their own high-speed services, which helps Google deliver its own services faster. Ultimately, Fiber may even give Google insurance against the hassles it could face from incumbent ISPs newly empowered to set up internet roadblocks as net neutrality protections disappear.
For now, net neutrality isn’t necessarily as big an issue for Facebook. After all, status updates don’t take up nearly as much bandwidth as YouTube videos. But a company as ambitious as Facebook is always thinking ahead, and drones could give the social network a way to go one better than Google by focusing on putting the internet in the air instead of in the ground. The idea of an airborne internet has been discussed for a long time, but it will likely take a company with the resources of a Facebook or a Google to bring the concept into the real world.
From a logistics standpoint, the sky seems like much more efficient, scalable way to build connectivity. Instead of the intensive, intrusive labor of digging trenches and laying pipes, just send more drones up in the air to bring more homes online. If the drones can really stay aloft the way Titan says they can, there’s way more space available in the sky than there is down below.
NASA has successfully concluded a remotely controlled test of new technologies that would empower future space robots to transfer hazardous oxidizer — a type of propellant — into the tanks of satellites in space today.
Concurrently on the ground, NASA is incorporating results from this test and the Robotic Refueling Mission on the International Space Station to prepare for an upcoming ground-based test of a full-sized robotic servicer system that will perform tasks on a mock satellite client.
Collectively, these efforts are part of an ongoing and aggressive technology development campaign to equip robots and humans with the tools and capabilities needed for spacecraft maintenance and repair, the assembly of large space telescopes, and extended human exploration.
Technologies that could help satellites traveling the busy space highway of geosynchronous Earth orbit, or GEO.
Located 22,000 miles above Earth, this orbital path is home to more than 400 satellites, many of which beam communications, television and weather data to customers worldwide.
Developing robotic capabilities to repair and refuel GEO satellites, NASA hopes to add precious years of functional life to satellites and expand options for operators who face unexpected emergencies, tougher economic demands and aging fleets. NASA also hopes that these new technologies will help boost the commercial satellite-servicing industry that is rapidly gaining momentum.
Capability to fix and relocate “ailing” satellites also could help mitigate the growing orbital debris problem that threatens continued space operations,
The Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., checked another critical milestone off their list with the completion of their Remote Robotic Oxidizer Transfer Test (RROxiTT) in February 2014.
SSCO is also gearing up for the next phase of the Robotic Refueling Mission on the International Space Station. The next Automated Transfer Vehicle, currently scheduled to launch to the space station in June of this year, will deliver new RRM hardware for a fresh set of activities.
Upcoming demonstrations include spacecraft inspection, the replenishment of cryogens in satellites not originally designed for in-flight service, and advanced solar cell technology.
Google / DARPA and NASA have so far advanced robotics technology it’s a massively powerful tool, ALL of corrupt departments will abuse the power of it to our detriment.
materials provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. http://www.wired.com , NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center. “New robotic refueling technologies tested.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 March 2014. . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
- B. M. Walsh, J. C. Foster, P. J. Erickson, D. G. Sibeck. Simultaneous Ground- and Space-Based Observations of the Plasmaspheric Plume and Reconnection. Science, 2014 DOI: 10.1126/science.1247212