Space Tornado Produces Colorful Skies

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UC Berkeley scientists and international researchers have discovered that the colorful night sky phenomena called the Northern and Southern Lights are generated by a swirling space tornado.

The discovery, which was presented at last week's European Geosciences Union conference in Vienna, was the result of a chance collision between scientists' satellites and a space tornado. Upon further investigation, researchers found that the massive funnel was responsible for creating the light patterns in the sky known as auroras.

"The funnel carries energy that is so intense it makes the ionosphere glow like a lightbulb," said Andreas Keiling, a research space physicist at the Space Sciences Laboratory at UC Berkeley and lead author of a paper about the discovery. "We're studying how energy changes forms until it finally dissipates and creates the aurora in the upper atmosphere."

Auroras are created when the sun's radiation builds up above the Earth's upper atmosphere, to the point at which the energy is suddenly released. The explosion creates a rotating magnetic field, which then funnels an electrical current toward Earth to create an aurora.

The discovery was part of the Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions Program, which aims to understand more about how auroras are generated as a result of weather changes in space.

The program, which is funded by NASA and managed by UC Berkeley researchers, involves five orbiting satellites launched in 2007, which are currently collecting data about space weather.

Based on findings from one of the satellites, scientists say the size of the tornado at its maximum diameter may span the Earth's width. However, like tornadoes on the ground, it becomes narrower as it extends down to the upper atmosphere.

The explosion from this particular tornado released energy equivalent to about a magnitude 4.0 earthquake, said Vassilis Angelopoulos, a research physicist at the Space Sciences Lab and associate professor of earth and space sciences at UCLA, who worked on the study.

Angelopoulos said such massive explosions can cause communication satellites to temporarily malfunction and have been known to cause large blackouts on Earth.

"Ultimately, we'd like to predict such storms far enough in advance to protect our satellites and humans in space," he said.

Scientists say they would like to learn more about how these space tornadoes change with the sun's behavior. But for now, they say it is amazing just to be able to link auroras with space tornadoes.

"It's the most beautiful result, when you can look at the intense aurora and say, 'Wow, look, there must be a space tornado out there,'" Keiling said.


Christine Chen covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected]

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