Earth's Magnetism In Action

  • Released Tuesday, May 24th, 2016
  • Updated Wednesday, May 3rd, 2023 at 1:48PM
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The environment around Earth overflows with energy and a complex system of magnetic fields that trap electrons and other charged particles. When these fields collide and realign—a process called magnetic reconnection—it can be hugely explosive, sending particles hurtling off at near the speed of light. Magnetic reconnection powers a wide variety of events in space, from giant explosions on the sun to auroras in the night sky. But until recently, we have never been able to witness this phenomenon directly. That all changed on October 16, 2015, when four spacecraft of NASA’s MMS mission made the first observations of a magnetic reconnection event while orbiting our planet. The data collected by the spacecraft allowed scientists to track better than ever before how the magnetic fields changed, as well as the speeds and direction of the various charged particles. The findings will help protect spacecraft and astronauts from the potential damages of space travel. Watch the video to learn more.

Magnetic reconnection occurs when Earth's magnetic field lines (shown above) suddenly come together and realign.

Magnetic reconnection occurs when Earth's magnetic field lines (shown above) suddenly come together and realign.

NASA's MMS spacecraft orbit Earth, crossing the boundaries of its magnetic field in search of magnetic reconnection events.

NASA's MMS spacecraft orbit Earth, crossing the boundaries of its magnetic field in search of magnetic reconnection events.

The spacecraft detected a big event in October 2015. The rearranging of magnetic field lines caused a swift release of particles and energy.

The spacecraft detected a big event in October 2015. The rearranging of magnetic field lines caused a swift release of particles and energy.

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NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center