A 23-year-old astrophysics student from University of Sydney in Australia has finally confirmed a decades-old theory that giant plasma tubes float above the Earth.
Using the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) low frequency radio telescope, Cleo Loi found visual evidence that plasma tubes indeed exist in the Earth's atmosphere, a theory held by scientists for about 60 years.
The discovery is significant in that these structures could cause unnecessary distortions that may negatively affect the navigational systems on Earth.
"The discovery of the structures is important because they cause unwanted signal distortions that could, as one example, affect our civilian and military satellite-based navigation systems," Loi said adding that this is why it is crucial to understand them.
The area surrounding our planet that is occupied by magnetic field is known as the magnetosphere and it is filled with plasma, which is created when sunlight ionizes, or electrically charges, the atmosphere.
The magnetosphere is composed of several layers with the innermost known as the ionosphere and the next above it is the plasmasphere and these are embedded with an assortment of plasma structures including what has just been revealed, the tubes.
Loi said that the plasma tubes are in the upper ionosphere and they seem to continue above into the plasmasphere.
As for the purpose of these tubes, Loi said that these may have a significant role in moderating the radiation belt's energy.
The researchers made the discovery by using the 7 sq. km MWA array as a binocular. Loi and colleagues used the low-frequency radio telescope to see in 3D and detected the presence of the tubular plasma structures in the magnetosphere's inner layers.
They divided the 128 array antennas into two spate receiving areas creating two "eyes" that when combined with triangulation, allowed the researchers to come up with a 3D dynamic map of the plasma tubes over a large area.
The researcher explained that by using the radio telescope as a pair of eyes, they were able to probe the three-dimensional nature of the structures and see them move around.
Loi said that they detected striking patterns in the sky characterized by stripes of high-density plasma alternating with stripes of low-density plasma, a pattern that drifted slowly and beautifully aligned with the magnetic field of the Earth just like aurorae.
The video shown provides more information of the plasma tubes that float above the Earth:
Photo: NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center | Flickr