ESA Science & Technology11-Jul-2005 15:00:22

Science Results

Understanding the proton aurora

ESA's four Cluster spacecraft have made a remarkable set of observations that has led to a breakthrough in understanding the origin of a peculiar and puzzling type of aurora.

These aurorae - seen as bright spots in Earth's atmosphere and called 'dayside proton auroral spots' - occur when fractures appear in the Earth's magnetic field, allowing particles given out from the Sun to squirt through and collide with the molecules in our atmosphere. This is the first time that a precise and direct connection between the two events has been made.

On 18 March last year, a jet of energetic solar protons collided with the Earth's atmosphere and created a bright 'spot' seen by NASA's IMAGE spacecraft, just as Cluster passed overhead and straight through the region where the proton jet was emanating. An extensive analysis of the Cluster results has now shown that the region was experiencing a turbulent event known as 'magnetic reconnection'. Such a phenomenon takes place when the Earth's usually impenetrable magnetic field fractures and has to find a new stable configuration. Until the field mends itself, solar protons leak through the gap and jet into Earth's atmosphere creating the dayside proton aurora. These results were published in Geophys. Res. Lett.

For further information please contact: