Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Solar wind


Several mammalian species spontaneously align their body axis with respect to the Earth’s magnetic field (MF) lines in diverse behavioral contexts. Magnetic alignment is a suitable paradigm to scan for the occurrence of magnetosensitivity across animal taxa with the heuristic potential to contribute to the understanding of the mechanism of magnetoreception and identify further functions of magnetosensation apart from navigation. With this in mind we searched for signs of magnetic alignment in dogs. We measured the direction of the body axis in 70 dogs of 37 breeds during defecation (1,893 observations) and urination (5,582 observations) over a two-year period. After complete sampling, we sorted the data according to the geomagnetic conditions prevailing during the respective sampling periods. Relative declination and intensity changes of the MF during the respective dog walks were calculated from daily magnetograms. Directional preferences of dogs under different MF conditions were analyzed and tested by means of circular statistics.

Concepts: Magnetic field, Earth's magnetic field, Magnet, Earth, Dynamo theory, Magnetism, Solar wind, Magnetosphere


Magnetic reconnection is believed to be the main driver to transport solar wind into the Earth’s magnetosphere when the magnetopause features a large magnetic shear. However, even when the magnetic shear is too small for spontaneous reconnection, the Kelvin-Helmholtz instability driven by a super-Alfvénic velocity shear is expected to facilitate the transport. Although previous kinetic simulations have demonstrated that the non-linear vortex flows from the Kelvin-Helmholtz instability gives rise to vortex-induced reconnection and resulting plasma transport, the system sizes of these simulations were too small to allow the reconnection to evolve much beyond the electron scale as recently observed by the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft. Here, based on a large-scale kinetic simulation and its comparison with MMS observations, we show for the first time that ion-scale jets from vortex-induced reconnection rapidly decay through self-generated turbulence, leading to a mass transfer rate nearly one order higher than previous expectations for the Kelvin-Helmholtz instability.

Concepts: Fundamental physics concepts, Magnetohydrodynamics, Earth's magnetic field, Earth, Sun, Solar wind, Magnetosphere, Aurora


The most recent “grand minimum” of solar activity, the Maunder minimum (MM, 1650-1710), is of great interest both for understanding the solar dynamo and providing insight into possible future heliospheric conditions. Here, we use nearly 30 years of output from a data-constrained magnetohydrodynamic model of the solar corona to calibrate heliospheric reconstructions based solely on sunspot observations. Using these empirical relations, we produce the first quantitative estimate of global solar wind variations over the last 400 years. Relative to the modern era, the MM shows a factor 2 reduction in near-Earth heliospheric magnetic field strength and solar wind speed, and up to a factor 4 increase in solar wind Mach number. Thus solar wind energy input into the Earth’s magnetosphere was reduced, resulting in a more Jupiter-like system, in agreement with the dearth of auroral reports from the time. The global heliosphere was both smaller and more symmetric under MM conditions, which has implications for the interpretation of cosmogenic radionuclide data and resulting total solar irradiance estimates during grand minima.

Concepts: Magnetic field, Magnetohydrodynamics, Earth's magnetic field, Earth, Sun, Plasma, Solar wind, Sunspot


Magnetic reconnection is believed to be the dominant process by which solar wind plasma enters the magnetosphere. However, for periods of northward interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) reconnection is less likely at the dayside magnetopause, and Kelvin-Helmholtz waves (KHWs) may be important agents for plasma entry and for the excitation of ultra-low-frequency (ULF) waves. The relative importance of KHWs is controversial because no statistical data on their occurrence frequency exist. Here we survey 7 years of in situ data from the NASA THEMIS (Time History of Events and Macro scale Interactions during Substorms) mission and find that KHWs occur at the magnetopause ∼19% of the time. The rate increases with solar wind speed, Alfven Mach number and number density, but is mostly independent of IMF magnitude. KHWs may thus be more important for plasma transport across the magnetopause than previously thought, and frequently drive magnetospheric ULF waves.

Concepts: Magnetohydrodynamics, Earth, Sun, Jupiter, Solar wind, Magnetosphere, Aurora, Magnetic reconnection


Solar flares signify the sudden release of magnetic energy and are sources of so called space weather. The fine structures (below 500 km) of flares are rarely observed and are accessible to only a few instruments world-wide. Here we present observation of a solar flare using exceptionally high resolution images from the 1.6 m New Solar Telescope (NST) equipped with high order adaptive optics at Big Bear Solar Observatory (BBSO). The observation reveals the process of the flare in unprecedented detail, including the flare ribbon propagating across the sunspots, coronal rain (made of condensing plasma) streaming down along the post-flare loops, and the chromosphere’s response to the impact of coronal rain, showing fine-scale brightenings at the footpoints of the falling plasma. Taking advantage of the resolving power of the NST, we measure the cross-sectional widths of flare ribbons, post-flare loops and footpoint brighenings, which generally lie in the range of 80-200 km, well below the resolution of most current instruments used for flare studies. Confining the scale of such fine structure provides an essential piece of information in modeling the energy transport mechanism of flares, which is an important issue in solar and plasma physics.

Concepts: Sun, Solar wind, Solar flare, Corona, Photosphere, Aurora, Plasma physics, Ionosphere


Launched over 35 years ago, Voyagers 1 and 2 are on an epic journey outward from the Sun to reach the boundary between the solar plasma and the much cooler interstellar medium. The boundary, called the heliopause, is expected to be marked by a large increase in plasma density, from about 0.002 cm(-3) in the outer heliosphere, to about 0.1 cm(-3) in the interstellar medium. On 9 April 2013, the Voyager 1 plasma wave instrument began detecting locally generated electron plasma oscillations at a frequency of about 2.6 kHz. This oscillation frequency corresponds to an electron density of about 0.08 cm(-3), very close to the value expected in the interstellar medium. These and other observations provide strong evidence that Voyager 1 has crossed the heliopause into the nearby interstellar plasma.

Concepts: Sun, Solar System, Interstellar medium, Solar wind, Cosmic ray, Voyager 1, Heliosphere, Voyager program


The Martian limb (that is, the observed ‘edge’ of the planet) represents a unique window into the complex atmospheric phenomena occurring there. Clouds of ice crystals (CO2 ice or H2O ice) have been observed numerous times by spacecraft and ground-based telescopes, showing that clouds are typically layered and always confined below an altitude of 100 kilometres; suspended dust has also been detected at altitudes up to 60 kilometres during major dust storms. Highly concentrated and localized patches of auroral emission controlled by magnetic field anomalies in the crust have been observed at an altitude of 130 kilometres. Here we report the occurrence in March and April 2012 of two bright, extremely high-altitude plumes at the Martian terminator (the day-night boundary) at 200 to 250 kilometres or more above the surface, and thus well into the ionosphere and the exosphere. They were spotted at a longitude of about 195° west, a latitude of about -45° (at Terra Cimmeria), extended about 500 to 1,000 kilometres in both the north-south and east-west directions, and lasted for about 10 days. The features exhibited day-to-day variability, and were seen at the morning terminator but not at the evening limb, which indicates rapid evolution in less than 10 hours and a cyclic behaviour. We used photometric measurements to explore two possible scenarios and investigate their nature. For particles reflecting solar radiation, clouds of CO2-ice or H2O-ice particles with an effective radius of 0.1 micrometres are favoured over dust. Alternatively, the plume could arise from auroral emission, of a brightness more than 1,000 times that of the Earth’s aurora, over a region with a strong magnetic anomaly where aurorae have previously been detected. Importantly, both explanations defy our current understanding of Mars' upper atmosphere.

Concepts: Light, Earth's magnetic field, Earth, Sun, Mars, Atmosphere, Plasma, Solar wind


Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are episodic eruptions of solar plasma and magnetic flux that travel out through the solar system, driving extreme space weather. Interpretation of CME observations and their interaction with the solar wind typically assumes CMEs are coherent, almost solid-like objects. We show that supersonic radial propagation of CMEs away from the Sun results in geometric expansion of CME plasma parcels at a speed faster than the local wave speed. Thus information cannot propagate across the CME. Comparing our results with observed properties of over 400 CMEs, we show that CMEs cease to be coherent magnetohydrodynamic structures within 0.3 AU of the Sun. This suggests Earth-directed CMEs are less like billiard balls and more like dust clouds, with apparent coherence only due to similar initial conditions and quasi homogeneity of the medium through which they travel. The incoherence of CMEs suggests interpretation of CME observations requires accurate reconstruction of the ambient solar wind with which they interact, and that simple assumptions about the shape of the CMEs are likely to be invalid when significant spatial/temporal gradients in ambient solar wind conditions are present.

Concepts: Earth, Sun, Weather, Solar System, Solar wind, Corona, Coronal mass ejection, Space weather


A coupling between geomagnetic activity and the human nervous system’s function was identified by virtue of continuous monitoring of heart rate variability (HRV) and the time-varying geomagnetic field over a 31-day period in a group of 10 individuals who went about their normal day-to-day lives. A time series correlation analysis identified a response of the group’s autonomic nervous systems to various dynamic changes in the solar, cosmic ray, and ambient magnetic field. Correlation coefficients and p values were calculated between the HRV variables and environmental measures during three distinct time periods of environmental activity. There were significant correlations between the group’s HRV and solar wind speed, Kp, Ap, solar radio flux, cosmic ray counts, Schumann resonance power, and the total variations in the magnetic field. In addition, the time series data were time synchronized and normalized, after which all circadian rhythms were removed. It was found that the participants' HRV rhythms synchronized across the 31-day period at a period of approximately 2.5 days, even though all participants were in separate locations. Overall, this suggests that daily autonomic nervous system activity not only responds to changes in solar and geomagnetic activity, but is synchronized with the time-varying magnetic fields associated with geomagnetic field-line resonances and Schumann resonances.

Concepts: Nervous system, Brain, Magnetic field, Earth's magnetic field, Parasympathetic nervous system, Solar wind, Geophysics, Ionosphere


The advent of hard x-ray free-electron lasers (XFELs) has opened up a variety of scientific opportunities in areas as diverse as atomic physics, plasma physics, nonlinear optics in the x-ray range, and protein crystallography. In this article, we access a new field of science by measuring quantitatively the local bulk properties and dynamics of matter under extreme conditions, in this case by using the short XFEL pulse to image an elastic compression wave in diamond. The elastic wave was initiated by an intense optical laser pulse and was imaged at different delay times after the optical pump pulse using magnified x-ray phase-contrast imaging. The temporal evolution of the shock wave can be monitored, yielding detailed information on shock dynamics, such as the shock velocity, the shock front width, and the local compression of the material. The method provides a quantitative perspective on the state of matter in extreme conditions.

Concepts: Diffraction, Quantum mechanics, Optics, Physics, Sun, Laser, Shock wave, Solar wind