Story at a glance
- Space hurricanes are swirling masses of plasma that rain electrons rather than water.
- The hurricane occurred in August 2014, but the observations made by satellites were only recently uncovered.
- Scientists suspect such hurricanes are more common both in Earth’s solar system and others.
As if humanity didn’t have enough weather phenomena to worry about, scientists have discovered a “space hurricane” that occurred over the Earth’s upper atmosphere for the first time.
“Until now, it was uncertain that space plasma hurricanes even existed, so to prove this with such a striking observation is incredible,” Mike Lockwood, space scientist at the University of Reading, said in a release.
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Not only do space hurricanes exist, but researchers suspect they could be more relatively common within the solar system and beyond. This one, however, occurred back in August 2014, but the observations recorded by satellites were only uncovered recently. With the new findings, scientists were able to create a 3-D image of the 1,000 km-wide swirling mass of plasma that rained electrons instead of water several hundred kilometers above the North Pole.
“Tropical storms are associated with huge amounts of energy, and these space hurricanes must be created by unusually large and rapid transfer of solar wind energy and charged particles into the Earth’s upper atmosphere,” said Lockwood. “Plasma and magnetic fields in the atmosphere of planets exist throughout the universe, so the findings suggest space hurricanes should be a widespread phenomena.”
The space hurricane lasted almost eight hours before it began to break down, according to the researchers, and while it doesn’t lead to flooding like hurricanes in the Earth’s lower atmosphere, scientists said it could increase satellite drag, cause disturbances in high frequency radio communications and even lead to errors in over-the-horizon radar location, satellite navigation, and communication systems.
“The process may also be important for the interaction between interstellar winds and other solar systems throughout the universe,” concluded scientists, who suspect the space hurricane is a universal phenomenon.
Still, there’s a lot that’s unknown about these and other space hurricanes, which haven’t yet been detected in the upper atmospheres of other planets (although hurricanes have been seen at lower atmospheric levels).
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