Solving the Mystery of Our Atmosphere’s Electric Currents

Tn_7112_terr_ionosphere NASA Rockets cutting the very edge of space are probing mysterious electric currents found in the uppermost reaches of the ionosphere that can disrupt communications and GPS satellites that beam signals through it.

To study the ionosphere, scientists are launching four rockets from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia for a five-minute journey about 100 miles (160 km) up into the atmosphere to collect data on the charged and neutral particles to learn how each affects the other to ultimately create the dynamo currents.


Beginning about 50 miles (80 kilometers) above Earth's surface this energetic, active part of the atmosphere  is filled with electrically charged particles such as protons and atomic oxygen created by extreme ultraviolet radiation from the sun reacting with air molecules.

At the base of the ionosphere, are currents of these charged particles, or plasma, known as the atmospheric dynamo that move in loops from the equator to the poles, changing daily based on solar heating and magnetic activity. At the same time, winds of electrically neutral particles such as oxygen and nitric oxide molecules sweep through the lower ionosphere. The mystery is what keeps the dynamo moving.

"A better understanding of our own ionosphere will help us understand planets elsewhere in the universe — any planet with an atmosphere is sure to have these currents," Rob Pfaff , the project scientist for NASA's sounding rocket program at Goddard Space Flight Center told OurAmazing Planet.com

"This experiment has never been done before," Pfaff added. "We've measured the dynamo currents using rocket probes, but we've never simultaneously measured the currents along with the upper atmosphere winds and the electric fields that drive the currents."

The launches will depend on weather and ionospheric conditions. Scientists will need evidence of currents in the ionosphere, as well as the clear skies necessary for successful observation of the lithium trails.

The first pair of rockets was launched on July 10, when the ionosphere was relatively calm, and the next pair is scheduled for launch yesteray, July 13, ideally during conditions where the electric currents are reversed, a sign of changes in the electric fields and wind conditions of the upper atmosphere.

The image top of page shows the aurora borealis seen high in the Earth’s ionosphere (credit: NASA)

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