(Title reference to the song in Big Bang Theory Soft Kitty)
Well, from the “settle science being unsettled” department…
First it was the discovery of more ‘warm plasma’ around the earth in unexpected places:
“Warm Plasma Cloak” Discovered Enveloping Earth
National Geographic News
January 7, 2009
The Earth is dressed in layers that protect it from the sun’s fierce winds, and scientists have identified a new one they call a “warm plasma cloak.”
Charles “Rick” Chappell, a physicist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, led a research team that assembled information dating back decades to describe the new magnetosphere layer.
Some of the first hints of the cloak first showed up in data from research satellites in the early 1970s. The cloak was finally confirmed by NASA’s Polar satellite, which ended a 12-year run in April 2008. The cloak’s discovery creates a theoretical home for particles that didn’t fit with any of the other understood parts of the Earth’s magnetosphere, Chappell said.
The warm plasma cloak begins thinly on the nightside—or darkside—of the planet and wraps around to the dayside, where it becomes thickest until noon. In the afternoon, convective winds push the cloak out toward the edge of the magnetosphere, where it’s peeled off by solar winds.
Depending on where it is relative to Earth, and the energy of the solar wind, the cloak can be found anywhere from 13,000 to 65,000 miles (20,000 to 105,000 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface. It is always thickest on the planet’s dayside.
Earth’s magnetosphere is more than a million miles in the tail, which trails off in the downwind direction from the sun. It’s so far-reaching that the moon orbits through it every month.
Magnetic Boon and Bane
The formerly mysterious warm plasma cloak is also implicated in one of the menacing effects of the magnetic field—damage to dozens of human-made satellites over the years.
“The warm plasma cloak is part of the environment that communications and weather satellites fly in,” Chappell said. “It will play a role in how much the spacecraft charge electrically.”
OK, so we have a magnetic connection to the moon and we have an answer to some mysteries of the satellites… (Wonder if it might impact any of our climate measuring satellites?…)
Now it’s “cold plasma”
Giant Veil of “Cold Plasma” Discovered High Above Earth
Clouds of charged particles stretch a quarter the way to the moon, experts say.
for National Geographic News
Published January 26, 2012
Clouds of “cold plasma” reach from the top of Earth’s atmosphere to at least a quarter the distance to the moon, according to new data from a cluster of European satellites.
Earth generates cold plasma—slow-moving charged particles—at the edge of space, where sunlight strips electrons from gas atoms, leaving only their positively charged cores, or nuclei.
Researchers had suspected these hard-to-detect particles might influence incoming space weather, such as this week’s solar flare and resulting geomagnetic storm. That’s because solar storms barrage Earth with similar but high-speed charged particles.
Still, no one could be certain what the effects of cold plasma might be without a handle on its true abundance around our planet.
“It’s like the weather forecast on TV. It’s very complicated to make a reasonable forecast without the basic variables,” said space scientist Mats André, of the Swedish Institute of Space Physics.
“Discovering this cold plasma is like saying, Oh gosh, there are oceans here that affect our weather,” he said.
André and his colleague Chris Cully suspected the plasma could be out there, but they knew the positive charge of spacecraft wasn’t helping any search efforts.
Similar to the way cold plasma is created, sunlight strips electrons from spacecraft materials, making their hulls positively charged. Like two matching magnetic poles, a spacecraft would simply repulse any cold plasma around it.
To find the stuff, André and Cully instead analyzed anomalies in data from the European Space Agency’s Cluster II spacecraft.
This group of four satellites swings around Earth in a highly elliptical orbit. At the orbit’s peak, the probes reach nearly halfway to the moon.
The enormous distance gives researchers a chance to sweep through and monitor Earth’s magnetic field and electrical activity, including the influence of “hot” charged particles emitted by the sun.
Anomalies in the Cluster II data turned out to be shockwaves from cold plasma particles moving around the satellites.
Cold Plasma a Space Weather “Elephant”
In the end, the pair found that cold plasma makes up between 50 and 70 percent of all charged particles within the farther reaches of Earth’s magnetic field.
André says it’s now time to start updating space-weather models to take the extra cold plasma into account—at this point, for instance, nothing is known about how the plasma might affect solar storms.
This influence is “not a minor thing in space weather,” André said. “It’s an elephant in the room.”
The cold-plasma study has been accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters.
So What’s Next?
We’ve got hot plasma from the sun filling the solar system
We’ve now got both warm and cold plasma around the Earth and even reaching to the moon at least once a month.
We’ve got large current loops detected from the sun to the Earth via plasma filaments.
If this keeps up, folks might start to think that plasma was of fundamental importance to the structure and function of the solar system…
Plasma, Plasma, Everywhere
A new model of the plasmasphere surrounding our world
“99.9 percent of the Universe is made up of plasma,” says Dr. Dennis Gallagher, a plasma physicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “Very little material in space is made of rock like the Earth.”