Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Cluster Watches Earth's Leaky Atmosphere

Date:
August 28, 2008
Source:
European Space Agency
Summary:
Oxygen is constantly leaking out of Earth's atmosphere and into space. Now, ESA's formation-flying quartet of satellites, Cluster, has discovered the physical mechanism that is driving the escape. It turns out that the Earth's own magnetic field is accelerating the oxygen away.

This artist's impression shows electrically charged oxygen, hydrogen and helium atoms (ions) leaking into space from the Earth atmosphere, over the poles. ESA's Cluster mission discovered that this accelerated escape is driven by changes in direction of the Earth own magnetic field.
Credit: NASA/ESA

Oxygen is constantly leaking out of Earth’s atmosphere and into space. Now, ESA’s formation-flying quartet of satellites, Cluster, has discovered the physical mechanism that is driving the escape. It turns out that the Earth’s own magnetic field is accelerating the oxygen away.

Related Articles


The new work uses data collected by Cluster from 2001 to 2003. During this time, Cluster amassed information about beams of electrically charged oxygen atoms, known as ions, flowing outwards from the polar regions into space. Cluster also measured the strength and direction of the Earth’s magnetic field whenever the beams were present.

Hans Nilsson, Swedish Institute of Space Physics, headed a team of space scientists who analysed the data. They discovered that the oxygen ions were being accelerated by changes in the direction of the magnetic field. “It is a bit like a sling-shot effect,” says Nilsson.

Having all four Cluster spacecraft was essential to the analysis because it gave astronomers a way to measure the strength and direction of the magnetic field over a wide area. “Cluster allowed us to measure the gradient of the magnetic field and see how it was changing direction with time,” says Nilsson.

Before the space age, scientists believed that Earth’s magnetic field was filled only with particles from the solar wind, the constant sleet of particles that escapes from the Sun. They thought this formed a large cushion that protected the Earth’s atmosphere from direct interaction with the solar wind.

“We are beginning to realise just how many interactions can take place between the solar wind and the atmosphere,” says Nilsson. Energetic particles from the solar wind can be channelled along the magnetic field lines and, when these impact the atmosphere of the Earth, they can produce aurorae. This occurs over the poles of Earth. The same interactions provide the oxygen ions with enough energy to accelerate out of the atmosphere and reach the Earth’s magnetic environment.

The Cluster data were captured over the poles with the satellites flying at an altitude of anywhere between 30,000 and 64,000 kilometres. Measurements taken by earlier satellites during the 1980s and 1990s showed that the escaping ions were travelling faster the higher they were observed. This implied that some sort of acceleration mechanism was involved and several possibilities were proposed. Thanks to this new Cluster study, the mechanism accounting for most of the acceleration has now been identified.

At present, the escape of oxygen is nothing to worry about. Compared to the Earth’s stock of the life-supporting gas, the amount escaping is negligible. However, in the far future when the Sun begins to heat up in old age, the balance might change and the oxygen escape may become significant. “We can only predict these future changes if we understand the mechanisms involved,” says Nilsson.

For now, Cluster will continue collecting data and providing new insights into the complex magnetic environment surrounding our planet.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by European Space Agency. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

European Space Agency. "Cluster Watches Earth's Leaky Atmosphere." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 28 August 2008. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/08/080828090715.htm>.
European Space Agency. (2008, August 28). Cluster Watches Earth's Leaky Atmosphere. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 29, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/08/080828090715.htm
European Space Agency. "Cluster Watches Earth's Leaky Atmosphere." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/08/080828090715.htm (accessed March 29, 2015).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Earth & Climate News

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Vietnam Rice Boom Piles Pressure on Farmers and the Environment

Vietnam Rice Boom Piles Pressure on Farmers and the Environment

AFP (Mar. 29, 2015) Vietnam&apos;s drive to become the world&apos;s leading rice exporter is pushing farmers in the fertile Mekong Delta to the brink, say experts, with mounting costs to the environment. Duration: 02:35 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Raw: New Eruptions at Colima Volcano in Mexico

Raw: New Eruptions at Colima Volcano in Mexico

AP (Mar. 28, 2015) The Colima Volcano in western Mexico sent large columns of ash up into the air on Saturday. (March 28) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Antarctic Ice Is Melting Faster Than Ever

Antarctic Ice Is Melting Faster Than Ever

Newsy (Mar. 27, 2015) A new study of nearly two decades of satellite data shows Antarctic ice shelves are losing more mass faster every year. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Raw: Homes Near Landslide in Washington

Raw: Homes Near Landslide in Washington

AP (Mar. 27, 2015) Aerial footage from KOMO shows several homes near a landslide in Washington. KOMO reports that at least one of the homes has been damaged. (March 27) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Plants & Animals

Earth & Climate

Fossils & Ruins

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins