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"X-Points" --Space Portals Linking Earth to Sun's Magnetic Field (Weekend Feature)





Data from NASA's Polar spacecraft, circa 1998, provided crucial clues to finding "portals" -- an extraordinary opening in space or time that connects travelers to distant realms. "We call them X-points or electron diffusion regions," explains plasma physicist Jack Scudder of the University of Iowa. "They're places where the magnetic field of Earth connects to the magnetic field of the Sun, creating an uninterrupted path leading from our own planet to the sun's atmosphere 93 million miles away."

Observations by NASA's THEMIS spacecraft and Europe's Cluster probes suggest that these magnetic portals open and close dozens of times each day. They're typically located a few tens of thousands of kilometers from Earth where the geomagnetic field meets the onrushing solar wind. Most portals are small and short-lived; others are yawning, vast, and sustained. Tons of energetic particles can flow through the openings, heating Earth's upper atmosphere, sparking geomagnetic storms, and igniting bright polar auroras.

NASA is planning a mission called "MMS," short for Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission, due to launch in 2014, to study the phenomenon. Bristling with energetic particle detectors and magnetic sensors, the four spacecraft of MMS will spread out in Earth's magnetosphere and surround the portals to observe how they work.

Just one problem: Finding them. Magnetic portals are invisible, unstable, and elusive. They open and close without warning "and there are no signposts to guide us in," notes Scudder.* Portals form via the process of magnetic reconnection. Mingling lines of magnetic force from the sun and Earth criss-cross and join to create the openings. "X-points" are where the criss-cross takes place. The sudden joining of magnetic fields can propel jets of charged particles from the X-point, creating an "electron diffusion region."

To learn how to pinpoint these events, Scudder looked at data from a space probe that orbited Earth more than 10 years ago.* "In the late 1990s, NASA's Polar spacecraft spent years in Earth's magnetosphere," explains Scudder, "and it encountered many X-points during its mission."

Because Polar carried sensors similar to those of MMS, Scudder decided to see how an X-point looked to Polar. "Using Polar data, we have found five simple combinations of magnetic field and energetic particle measurements that tell us when we've come across an X-point or an electron diffusion region. A single spacecraft, properly instrumented, can make these measurements."

This means that single member of the MMS constellation using the diagnostics can find a portal and alert other members of the constellation. Mission planners long thought that MMS might have to spend a year or so learning to find portals before it could study them. Scudder's work short cuts the process, allowing MMS to get to work without delay.* It's a shortcut worthy of the best portals of fiction, only this time the portals are real. And with the new "signposts" we know how to find them.

The work of Scudder and colleagues is described in complete detail in the June 1 issue of the Physical Review Letters.

The Daily Galaxy via Science@NASA


If we can go thru the portals to a "distant realm" then aliens should be able to go thru them from a long distance to visit us.

There is long and probably a very difficult task to assure us that they are "stable", then "Richard D. Anderson's" descendants will be able to test it, lol....

Are portals a tear in the fabric of space or a tunnel that connects to other area of the universe? or are they simply solar particles that are force by an event,explosion or something unknown to us? This phenomena that we call portals can not at present, answer any of the fundamental questions of how it started or stop?

This is a way to bring lay-people into the discussion on radiation shielding for space craft to venture to Mars. I appreciate NASA's writers, they have captivated the interest of non-scientists in a productive way.

Understanding x-points could be a clue to a branch of Theoretical Physics Research; geological electromagnatism's relation to the Van Allen radiation belt.

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