This is actually pretty big news out of NASA. [link to NASA]
NASA’s five THEMIS spacecraft have discovered a breach in Earth’s magnetic field ten times larger than anything previously thought to exist. Solar wind can flow in through the opening to “load up” the magnetosphere for powerful geomagnetic storms.
“The opening was huge—four times wider than Earth itself,” says Wenhui Li, a space physicist at the University of New Hampshire who has been analyzing the data. Li’s colleague Jimmy Raeder, also of New Hampshire, says “1027 particles per second were flowing into the magnetosphere—that’s a 1 followed by 27 zeros. This kind of influx is an order of magnitude greater than what we thought was possible.”
The event began with little warning when a gentle gust of solar wind delivered a bundle of magnetic fields from the Sun to Earth. Like an octopus wrapping its tentacles around a big clam, solar magnetic fields draped themselves around the magnetosphere and cracked it open.
It is potentially disasterous if we were to get a CME (coronal mass ejection), such as I warned about possibly coming Nov 2011 +/-90 days. [My Predictions from Feb 2008]
The Sun has suddenly taken down Earth’s “shields”: kinda like when the Romulans get the deactivation code to the Enterprise’s shields. Suddenly the shields “drop,” exposing the starship to attack. Sure, “the ship’s in danger, Jim,” but only if the Romulans fire.
In the same way, our Sun has just blasted the Earth’s protective magnetic field with a dose of solar magnetism that has burned a hole four times wider than our planet. With our protective “shields” down, the solar plasma (energetic charged particles from the sun) have invaded Earth’s magnetosphere.
If we have really bad luck, a Coronal Mass Ejection (billion(s) of tons of solar material hurling at 1 million MPH+) could then sideswipe Earth, triggering power outages, huge auroral displays and disrupting communications (radio and satellite).
This actually happened to us on September 2, 1859. Here’s a glimpse of what it was like:
Stuart – Well, imagine this: two thirds of the Earth’s skies erupt with the most incandescent, blood-red aurora. The kind of things that you see in the sky usually when you go up to high polar latitudes.
Chris – So the whole sky just goes bright red like it’s made of blood?
Stuart – In this case, yes. That’s what most of the eye-witness reports suggest. Worse than that is there seem to be bolts of white light flaring upwards and exploding with silent brilliance in the heavens. It was just the most amazing cataclysm that engulfed most of the Earth’s skies.
Chris – This was the 1800s. People must have thought the Earth was coming to an end?
Stuart – They had absolutely no idea what was going on, at all. There was a sinister side to this story as well. At the time that the aurora lit the sky the telegraph network across the world went down. It stopped functioning and it stopped functioning in the most spectacular of fashions. Electrical currents surged along the wires into the offices. The sparks flew from the equipment, offices were set on fire, some of the operators were stunned unconscious. The whole of the telecommunications network (as the telegraph was at the time) was taken down. At the same time, every compass on the Earth went haywire. In an instant and for reasons unknown to anybody global communications and navigations just stopped. [more]
CME events can last for 24 hours or more, and can come with as little warning as 15 minutes. Here’s a video of one that occurred last week from the Navy’s site [link].
Hey, anybody got some tinfoil hats?
See also: Severe Space Weather