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The Sciences

A Slinky That Lights the Sky

By Lauren GravitzJune 1, 2003 5:00 AM

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NASA's Polar satellite has revealed one of the power sources behind the gossamer glow of the aurora: Alfvén waves, oscillations in Earth's magnetic field that resemble the quivering of a Slinky toy. John Wygant of the University of Minnesota and Andreas Keiling of the Center for Space Research on Radiation in Toulouse, France, used Polar's instruments to study energy flowing along the lines of the geomagnetic field. "Field lines have a certain tension. Charged particles are tied to those lines, so when the field wiggles around, they wiggle too," Wygant says. Magnetic waves moving along those lines can catch electrons and accelerate them to speeds up to 30,000 miles a second. Eventually the particles crash into air molecules, giving up their energy in the form of the green, blue, red, and violet light of the aurora. Wherever Keiling and Wygant detected a powerful electromagnetic wiggling, the associated field lines led down to a region of aurora. Polar's instruments also showed that the energy in each electron stream was proportional to the intensity of the display. Similar Alfvén waves may transport energy away from the surface of the sun, heating the solar atmosphere to millions of degrees.

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