Musings of a Political Scientist

Earth’s Magnetic Field and Magnetosphere

Earth Magnetic Field and Earth Magnetosphere by Bryan Brandenburg


Earth’s Magnetosphere

A magnetosphere is the region around an astronomical object in which phenomena are dominated or organized by its magnetic field. Earth is surrounded by a magnetosphere, as are the magnetized planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Mercury and Jupiter’s moon Ganymede are magnetized, but too weakly to trap plasma. Mars has patchy surface magnetization. The term “magnetosphere” has also been used to describe regions dominated by the magnetic fields of celestial objects, e.g. pulsar magnetospheres.

Earth’s Magnetosphere Shaped by Multiple Forces

The magnetosphere of Earth is a region in space whose shape is determined by the extent of Earth’s internal magnetic field, the solar wind plasma, and the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF). In the magnetosphere, a mix of free ions and electrons from both the solar wind and the Earth’s ionosphere is confined by magnetic and electric forces that are much stronger than gravity and collisions. In spite of its name, the magnetosphere is distinctly non-spherical. On the side facing the Sun, the distance to its boundary (which varies with solar wind intensity) is about 70,000 km (10-12 Earth radii or RE, where 1 RE=6371 km; unless otherwise noted, all distances here are from the Earth’s center). The boundary of the magnetosphere (“magnetopause”) is roughly bullet shaped, about 15 RE abreast of Earth and on the night side (in the “magnetotail” or “geotail”) approaching a cylinder with a radius 20-25 RE. The tail region stretches well past 200 RE, and the way it ends is not well-known.

Atmospheric Components of the Magnetosphere

The outer neutral gas envelope of Earth, or geocorona, consists mostly of the lightest atoms, hydrogen and helium, and continues beyond 4-5 RE, with diminishing density. The hot plasma ions of the magnetosphere acquire electrons during collisions with these atoms and create an escaping “glow” of fast atoms that have been used to image the hot plasma clouds by the IMAGE mission. The upward extension of the ionosphere, known as the plasmasphere, also extends beyond 4-5 RE with diminishing density, beyond which it becomes a flow of light ions called the polar wind that escapes out of the magnetosphere into the solar wind. Energy deposited in the ionosphere by auroras strongly heats the heavier atmospheric components such as oxygen and molecules of oxygen and nitrogen, which would not otherwise escape from Earth’s gravity. Owing to this highly variable heating, however, a heavy atmospheric or ionospheric outflow of plasma flows during disturbed periods from the auroral zones into the magnetosphere, extending the region dominated by terrestrial material, known as the fourth or plasma geosphere, at times out to the magnetopause.