It's Okay to Call the "Magnetic Flux Ropes" Found Connecting the Sun and Earth an Electric Current!
In science, we would like to think that there are no taboos and that all subjects should be available for research. Not so, unfortunately... What do the terms "cold fusion," "UFO," "Velikovsky" stir in the minds of academics? The simple answers is often nothing short of contempt.
Contempt is an ugly word, but not far off the mark.
Contempt is an intense feeling or attitude of regarding someone or something as inferior, base, or worthless—it is similar to scorn. Contempt is also defined as the state of being despised or dishonored ...
Preconceptions about particular topics, especially so-called "hot-button issues" (religion, politics, etc.), are a natural part of human existence. Everyone has opinions and one's own opinions often color one's assessment of others and their opinions.
In some cases, a simple difference of opinions blossoms into something more onerous. An extreme difference of opinions on a polarizing issue may lead to one or the other side developing contempt for the other, at which point communications may break down or cease altogether.
One such instance is the curious case of electricity in space or the presumed lack thereof despite compelling evidence to the contrary.
It seems there has been a breakdown in communications between the field of astronomy and the fields of plasma physics and electrical engineering. Astronomers appear to be operating under the presupposition that charges cannot be separate in space and that currents do not exist between ponderable bodies in the sparse plasma medium between them. This may be at least partially an effect of the backlash relating to the so-called "Velikovsky affair."
To wit, it appears that astronomers have taken this presupposition so far that they steadfastly refuse to mention electric currents they have detected, preferring to refer only to their magnetic field byproducts in their press releases, except when the evidence becomes incontrovertible. As though simply refusing to mention them by their proper name (much as an ostrich hides its head in the sand when faced with a threat) somehow validates the view that either they're "not there" or "do nothing."
The electromagnetic field is a physical field produced by electrically charged objects. It affects the behaviour of charged objects in the vicinity of the field.
The electromagnetic field extends indefinitely throughout space and describes the electromagnetic interaction. It is one of the four fundamental forces of nature (the others are gravitation, the weak interaction, and the strong interaction).
The field can be viewed as the combination of an electric field and a magnetic field. The electric field is produced by stationary charges, and the magnetic field by moving charges (currents); these two are often described as the sources of the field. The way in which charges and currents interact with the electromagnetic field is described by Maxwell's equations and the Lorentz force law.
According to Maxwell and electromagnetic field theory, electricity and magnetism are conjoined twins, so to speak. The electric field derives its genesis from charged particles themselves, whereas the magnetic field derives its genesis from the net motion of charged particles (an electric current). Where we see one, we should naturally consider the other as well.
To attempt to divorce these fields and forces, as astronomers apparently do, goes against the prevailing view of the relationship between them. Nonetheless, in several recent press releases, NASA has described the discovery of "magnetic flux ropes," a name that researchers have conferred upon the interplanetary electric currents by which the sun transacts electrically with the Earth's upper atmosphere.
NASA Spacecraft Make New Discoveries About Northern Lights
A fleet of NASA spacecraft, launched less than eight months ago, has made three important discoveries about spectacular eruptions of Northern Lights called "substorms" and the source of their power.
[Researchers were] quite impressed with the substorm's power and ... estimated the total energy of the two-hour event at five hundred thousand billion Joules. That's equivalent to the energy of one magnitude 5.5 earthquake . Where does all that energy come from? THEMIS may have found the answer.
"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, Greenbelt, Md. "We believe that solar wind particles flow in along these ropes, providing energy for geomagnetic storms and auroras."
A magnetic rope is a twisted bundle of magnetic fields organized much like the twisted hemp of a mariner's rope. Spacecraft have detected hints of these ropes before, but a single spacecraft was insufficient to map their 3D structure. THEMIS' five identical micro-satellites were able to perform the feat.
Underlying each display of pretty lights is a potent geomagnetic storm. THEMIS observed one recently with a total energy of five hundred thousand billion (5 x 1014) Joules. "That's approximately equivalent to the energy of a magnitude 5 earthquake," says Angelopoulos.
THEMIS may have found the substorm power supply ...
"The satellites have detected magnetic 'ropes' connecting Earth's upper atmosphere directly to the Sun," says Dave Sibeck, project scientist for the mission at the Goddard Space Flight Center. "We believe that solar wind particles flow in along these ropes, providing energy for geomagnetic storms and auroras."
It's curious that researchers have called these structures "magnetic ropes" or "magnetic flux ropes," when in fact they are part of a 650,000 Amp circuit connecting Earth's upper polar atmosphere to the sun (and vice versa), according to the multimedia that accompanied NASA's original press release.
10. Flux Ropes Power the Magnetosphere!: THEMIS discovered a flux rope pumping a 650,000 Amp current into the Arctic.
It is quite plain from the accompanying multimedia that the so-called "flux ropes" should rightly be referred to as a 650,000 Amp electric current.
But wait, say some astronomers, what about "magnetic reconnection" and the "frozen-in" magnetic field lines that are supposed to be carried along with the plasma?
Unfortunately, those may be false concepts.
Hannes Alfvén, the so-called "father of MHD (magnetohydrodynamics)" originally propsed the concept of treating magnetic field lines as though they were "frozen-in" to plasma. However, in the course of his real-world laboratory investigations of plasma, he came to realize the error of that concept. Unfortunately, astronomers had already run far and wide with his idea and, despite his pleas to disregard his incorrect idea, refused to discard it. Alfvén also consistently argued against the notion of "reconnection" or "magnetic merging" as pseudo-science. His thoughts can be found in several of his papers.
More recently, electrical engineer Don Scott has also argued persuasively against "magnetic reconnection" in a 2007 peer-reviewed paper: Real Properties of Electromagnetic Fields and Plasma in the Cosmos.
As implied by the title of the article, it's okay to let it all go and call a current a current.
As if on cue, Los Alamos National Labs just recently made public that they are studying "magnetic flux ropes." But, far from being a mere bundle of magnetic field lines, they have characterized the interaction in terms of electric currents and plasma instabilities. They also recognize the implications not just for physics in near space and of the sun but for cosmological plasmas as well. This is a most welcome development!
Title: SPOTLIGHT Roping in Magnetic Fields
Abstract: Ropes of magnetic flux are created and studied in the laboratory for the first time. These helical structures are related to solar activity as well as to the large-scale structure of the universe.
At the Sun's edge, in a region called the heliosphere, magnetic fields and electrical currents constantly align and twist themselves in massive 3-D structures called "magnetic flux ropes." These high-tension ropes are unstable and tend to kink and relax into helical configurations (through what theorists call the kink instability). Occasionally, a rope end—which was previously "tied" to the Sun's surface—breaks loose, ejecting electrically charged gas called plasma and producing solar flares that can wreak havoc with everything from satellites to electrical power grids.
Once observed only in places like the Sun's surface, flux ropes are now being created by Los Alamos scientists in the laboratory, making it possible to tie experimental data to prior theoretical analyses. As reported in the July 7, 2006, Physical Review Letters, a small plasma gun shoots plasma into a vacuum. The plasma then flows along an externally produced magnetic field to form plasma-current filaments, or flexible wires composed of plasma. These "mini flux ropes" are photographed and studied with probe measurements as they wind helically around an imaginary central axis (see photo sequence at left).
This close-up study can shed light on the effects of flux ropes in everything from the Earth's magnetosphere to the giant astrophysical jets and radio lobes associated with active galaxies throughout the universe. According to Los Alamos experimentalist Thomas Intrator, "The more we learn in the laboratory, the more we'll know about how solar flares are produced and how the energy locked up in magnetic fields affects the large-scale structure of the universe."
Wonderful visualizations of a "reconnection" event and a proton aurora are available from NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio. Looking at the visualizations (the animations have no labels) sans the preconceived framework of "reconnection" and "frozen-in field lines," they also work well as a visualization of "field-aligned currents" or "Birkeland currents."
Once we let go of the outdated notion that space is a "perfect vacuum" and that charges "cannot be separated in space," an entire new vista for understanding the universe may open up to us. We can see our local space and the universe at large with fresh eyes.
- 99.999% of the visible matter in the universe is in the plasma state.
- Plasma is highly conductive and can carry electric currents.
- Plasma may spontaneously form double layers, which can separate regions of material with different properties (temperature, charge, composition).
- Electric currents naturally pinch and form filaments.
- The overall structure of the universe is filamentary.
- Galaxies form along filaments like beads on a string.
- The 'magnetic flux ropes' linking Earth's upper atmosphere to the sun, and vice versa, adopt a shape "organized much like the twisted hemp of a mariner's rope."
It seems the one force that has been left out of astronomical and cosmological discussion may be the one force that has the most to tell us about the structure and function of the cosmos. It is time to allow electricity back into the official lexicon of astronomy and cosmology (reaffirming Maxwell's interpretation of the relationship between electric currents and magnetic fields). Allow it to rejoin its brother magnetism and its cousins the strong interaction, the weak interaction and gravity.
It is also most appropriate to give credit where credit is due. While the credit for detecting the "magnetic flux ropes" goes to the THEMIS team, it is also necessary to cite prior art (the NASA press releases have failed to do so). Currents from space were previously detected in 1973 by the Triad satellite, confirming theories put forward 100 years ago by Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland.
When in 1973 the navy satellite Triad ... flew through this region in a low-altitude orbit, its magnetometer indeed detected the signatures of two large sheets of electric current, one coming down on the morning side of the auroral zone, one going up on the evening side, as expected. Because Kristian Birkeland had proposed long before currents which linked Earth and space in this fashion, they were named Birkeland currents (by Schield, Dessler and Freeman, in a 1969 article predicting some of the features observed by Triad). Typically, each sheet carries a million amperes or more.
Although signs of currents flowing from space along magnetic field lines were occasionally detected by earlier satellites, it was the US Navy's Triad, carrying the instrument of Alfred Zmuda and James Armstrong, that in 1973 traced their full pattern. Triad was an experimental navigation satellite, and it circled the Earth in a low altitude orbit which went from pole to pole, while the Earth rotated beneath it. Zmuda and Armstrong were allowed to place on it a magnetometer as an extra "piggyback experiment," and it continued to return scientific data for many years after the Navy's experiment had ended.
When Triad crossed a current sheet, a characteristic "signature" was generally noted: the direction of the magnetic field rotated fairly abruptly, while its strength stayed practically the same. From such rotations a wealth of information was extracted about the structure and variation of the currents. Tragically, both experimenters had died by the time their article on "Birkeland currents" appeared in 1974.
So, it would seem that NASA and the THEMIS team have failed to mention the prior art that was the Triad detection of Birkeland currents in 1973.
Birkeland led an expedition to observe the aurora polaris from 1902-1903 and subsequently (circa 1908) published a monograph entitled The Norwegian Aurora Polaris Expedition 1902-1903 in which he detailed both his scientific inquiry into the northern lights and the subsequent laboratory work with rarefied gases that led him to specific conclusions about the electrical nature of the solar-terrestrial interaction. For that reason, Birkeland currents were named in his honor. It is unfortunate that this piece of history seems to have fallen by the wayside when interpreting the most recent results from THEMIS.
Once put into their proper context, THEMIS' "magnetic flux ropes" align well conceptually with Birkeland's notion of "'pencil' cathode rays" emitted by the sun and transacting electrically with the Earth's atmosphere.
Much honor to Birkeland for his prescient lab work and similar honors to the Triad and THEMIS teams who appear to have shown Birkeland's work to have been precisely "on the mark."
It may also behoove astronomers to read Birkeland's monograph, as it provides potential answers to several other conundrums of solar and planetary atmospheres, ring systems, etc.