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NASA data shows waves in the Earth’s magnetosphere caused by solar wind

New data from NASA shows that the solar wind often forms perfectly shaped waves as it rushes past the magnetic bubble around the Earth, called the magnetosphere.

The waves, a pattern seen repeatedly around the Universe, are known as Kelvin-Helmholtz waves after the men who discovered them in the late 1800s.

Scientists have occasionally spotted Kelvin-Helmholtz waves at the boundary of the magnetosphere. But two new papers suggest new papers show the waves are much more common than expected.

“We have known before that Kelvin-Helmholtz waves exist at the boundaries of Earth’s magnetic environment – but they were considered relatively rare and thought to only appear under specialized conditions,” said Shiva Kavosi, a space scientist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, and first author on one of the papers, which appeared in Nature Communications.

“It turns out they can appear under any conditions and are much more prevalent than we thought. They’re present 20% of the time.”

Scientists want to understand the details of what happens at those boundaries because various events there can disturb our space environment. When strong enough, this space weather can interrupt our communications systems or electronics on board satellites.

The new research suggests the waves may have more of an effect on our space environment than previously realised.

“The theory of Kelvin-Helmholtz waves is well-developed, but we don’t have many observations,” said Evan Thomas, who works with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“These new observations show that the waves are happening more often than expected and are probably more important than we thought – but we still don’t know all the details.”

Bill Condie

Bill Condie

Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.

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