Friday, December 19, 2008

Breaching the Magnetosphere

Illustration of how solar winds impact the Earth's magnetosphere. Image courtesy of NASA.

Which way is north? NASA scientists are bending their minds around this question right now. A space probe, THEMIS, recently delivered some stunning news: the Earth's magnetosphere doesn't work like they expected -- and it's allowing a "massive breach" that is letting in the solar wind. This could be a problem because the Earth's magnetic field orients our understanding of direction, like north, and it protects all our gadgets. The hard drive in your iPod can play Britney Spears because it knows which way is north.

The Earth's magnetic poles supposedly remain static, but the Sun swaps polarities -- south becomes north and north become south -- every 11 years. Until the THEMIS discovery, scientists believed the greatest exchange of magnetic energy occurred when the Earth and Sun faced one another with opposite polarities, a kind of "69" configuration. Or like two gears moving in opposite directions. But the data from THEMIS proves the opposite is true: solar particles and plasma pour through when the Earth and Sun face each other in parallel orientation, north/north south/south. Imagine trying to catch water from a fountain: you would hold the cup up to collect the water, wouldn't you? Your cup and the water are opposing one another so you can catch the water. But according to NASA, Earth collects more magnetic energy when its "cup" configuration is upside down. It's counterintuitive, and much like the discoveries that woke scientists up to quantum mechanics , it's rockin' the field of astrophysics.

We've just begun a new 11-year cycle of increased solar activity, so scientists will have ample opportunity to study this revelation. Recently, NASA noted increased solar activity -- after a long lull -- that coincided with the date of the American elections. The metaphysicians among us can't help but see these counterintuitive revelations as a chance to reorient our world's concept of "true north," or "truth." But we know not everyone will be interested in tossing out their philosophical compasses. What's obvious to astrologers and astronomers alike, though, is that we've begun an 11-year period of intense solar activity flowing into the arms of Earth like a long-lost lover. The union will peak in 2012. What the climax will bring, no one's sure, but with our land and sky plastered with receptors for this baby, I'm confident someone's gonna know the Earth, or at least all of its magnetic domains, moved.