Northern Lights Controlled by Magnetic "Ropes"

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The images revealed a series of staccato outbursts each lasting about ten minutes. Some of the bursts died out, while others reinforced each other.

The researchers likened the substorm's power to a magnitude 5.5 earthquake.

Magnetic "Ropes"

NASA's THEMIS probes are designed to unravel the mysterious dynamics that create such colorful displays.

Angelopoulos said the prime observation season for the northern lights hasn't begun yet, but already the results are exciting.

"The satellites have found evidence of magnetic 'ropes' connecting Earth's upper atmosphere directly to the sun," said David Sibeck, project scientist for the mission at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

These ropes could serve as conduits for waves of charged particles from the sun called solar wind.

"We believe that solar wind particles flow in along these ropes, providing energy for geomagnetic storms and auroras."

Spacecraft have detected hints of these ropes before, but a single spacecraft was insufficient to map their 3-D structure.

THEMIS' identical micro-satellites were able to perform the feat.

The satellites have also glimpsed the evolution of heat waves and pressure blasts emitted from the northern lights' substorm.

Angelopoulos likened THEMIS' role to that of weather stations in our ability to predict atmospheric weather a century ago.

"These substorm processes are really helping us to understand and predict space weather," Angelopoulos said.

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