The hidden structures right over our heads

A team of astronomers has detected tube-like structures only hundreds of kilometres above the Earth’s surface.

The tubes are 500 to 700 km above the surface and aligned with the Earth’s magnetic field, following it as it angles down into the planet.

“For over 60 years, scientists believed these structures existed but by imaging them for the first time, we’ve provided visual evidence that they are really there,” said Cleo Loi of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO) at the University of Sydney and lead author of a paper published in Geophysical Research Letters.

The astronomers, including Prof. Bryan Gaensler, former director of CAASTRO and the current director of the Dunlap Institute at the University of Toronto, made their observations with the Murchison Widefield Array in Western Australia.

The radio telescope is designed to observe the early Universe and distant galaxies but has allowed us to gain insights into space much closer to home by bending the light’s path through layers in the Earth’s magnetosphere.

Scientists described it as like looking up from the bottom of a swimming pool at the distortions caused by waves on the surface.

“We were trying to understand if the motions of the ionosphere were random or had a pattern, both to see if the MWA could be used to study the ionosphere, and also to be able to correct for its effect and study the sources behind it,” Gaensler said.

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