High above the surface, Earth’s magnetic field constantly deflects incoming supersonic particles from the sun. These particles are disturbed in regions just outside of Earth’s magnetic field – and some are reflected into a turbulent region called the foreshock.
New observations from NASA’s THEMIS – short for Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms – mission show that this turbulent region can accelerate electrons up to speeds approaching the speed of light. Such extremely fast particles have been observed in near-Earth space and many other places in the universe, but the mechanisms that accelerate them have not yet been concretely understood.
The new results provide the first steps towards an answer, while opening up more questions. The research finds electrons can be accelerated to extremely high speeds in a near-Earth region farther from Earth than previously thought possible – leading to new inquiries about what causes the acceleration. These findings may change the accepted theories on how electrons can be accelerated not only in shocks near Earth, but also throughout the universe. Having a better understanding of how particles are energized will help scientists and engineers better equip spacecraft and astronauts to deal with these particles, which can cause equipment to malfunction and affect space travelers.
“This affects pretty much every field that deals with high-energy particles, from studies of cosmic rays to solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which have the potential to damage satellites and affect astronauts on expeditions to Mars,” said Lynn Wilson, lead author of the paper on these results at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
The results, published in Physical Review Letters, on Nov. 14, 2016, describe how such particles may get accelerated in specific regions just beyond Earth's magnetic field. Typically, a particle streaming toward Earth first encounters a boundary region known as the bow shock, which forms a protective barrier between the solar wind, the continuous and varying stream of charged particles flowing from the sun, and Earth. The magnetic field in the bow shock slows the particles, causing most to be deflected away from Earth, though some are reflected back towards the sun. These reflected particles form a region of electrons and ions called the foreshock region.
Some of those particles in the foreshock region are highly energetic, fast moving electrons and ions. Historically, scientists have thought one way these particles get to such high energies is by bouncing back and forth across the bow shock, gaining a little extra energy from each collision. However, the new observations suggest the particles can also gain energy through electromagnetic activity in the foreshock region itself.
L. B. Wilson et al. Relativistic Electrons Produced by Foreshock Disturbances Observed Upstream of Earth’s Bow Shock. Physical Review Letters, 2016; DOI: 117, 215101