Our Burning Planet


Making heaven in a lab: Scientists solve aurora mystery

Making heaven in a lab: Scientists solve aurora mystery
The Aurora Borealis: The green glow of discrete auroral arcs. (Image: Axelle B, CC0 Public Domain licence)

Wave-driven electrons prove the key to the celestial light show’s stunning signature

Think of the aurora — those lustrous shows of light pouring across polar night skies — as nature’s answer to preposterous party streamers. 

Displayed as sweeping greens, reds and yellows, these phenomena shoot through the heavens when air molecules and the Sun’s charged particles collide above our extreme northern and southern latitudes. Especially to Scandinavia’s first settlers, and to humanity since, the aurora has persisted as the stuff of untrammelled mystery. 

“The lights flare up again, tongues of flame that writhe and lick the heights of the sky,” muses Georgina Harding’s hero in her 2007 novel, The Solitude of Thomas Cave, as the whaler-turned-environmentalist tries to outlast a polar winter, alone, in 17th-century Svalbard. Those lights “melt away, and in the moonlight she is no longer there”, Thomas Cave observes, as he hallucinates his dead lover into being. 

An overview of the magnetosphere: Magnetotail reconnection and Earthward Alfvén waves. (Image: Austin Montelius, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, University of Iowa)

Now, by reproducing scaled, miniature versions of the mechanisms said to fuel the aurora, scientists say they have demonstrated the fundamentals underpinning this thing of atmospheric wonder.

Peeking through the chink in the matrix

The new results, published this week in Nature Communications and replicated by a team of US scientists in a lab, were first predicted back in the 1940s by the work of Soviet physicist Lev Landau, winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physics. Although not shown in action, his theory suggested that geomagnetic storm waves would speed up solar electrons to such an extent that their impact with atmospheric molecules would explode into the distinct curtains of light we call the aurora.

But this rippling kaleidoscope is just the encore — a chink in the matrix of what actually happens thousands of kilometres above Earth’s surface in the magnetosphere, that region of space forged by the dance between our magnetic field and the solar wind.  

Electron surfing: Electron acceleration by Landau Damping. (Image: Austin Montelius, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, University of Iowa)

Up there, according to established theories, the aurora’s makings lie along the trajectory of a cavalry of electrons, charging towards Earth on an electric field associated with “Alfvén waves”. Named after 1970 Nobel Prize winner and Swedish plasma physicist Hannes Alfvén, these waves are triggered by rebounding magnetic field lines — stirred up, in turn, by geomagnetic storms raging over Earth. This violent weather, also called solar storms, is the product of solar reactions, such as flares and coronal mass ejections, disturbing the flow of the Sun’s wind as it powers through space.  

When electrons are surfing in the same direction as Alfvén waves, these waves’ energy is transferred to the speeding electrons through a process known as “Landau Damping”. 

Now, picture these intrepid little electrons living their best lives as they barrel through the magnetosphere at speeds of up to 20,000 kilometres per second (km/s). 

The glowing aurora: Auroral emission by collisional excitation. (Image: Austin Montelius, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, University of Iowa)

As Alfvén waves hasten towards Earth, the growing strength of our planet’s magnetic field accelerates the waves from typical speeds of 5,000km/s up to almost 35,000km/s.

The Alfvén wave momentum sends the electrons crashing into nitrogen and oxygen molecules in the upper atmosphere, where, during the orgiastic encore, the molecules emit a light show so tantalising they manifest as a burst of distinct curtain calls. 

Or so the theory goes. 

Sounding rocket flights and spacecraft missions have provided evidence that Alfvéns speed up auroral electrons — even so, such measurements have been limited, the new paper’s authors note, thwarting confirmation of this theory up to now.  

Depiction of accelerated electrons precipitating in the aurora. (Image: Auroral photograph: Alex Gerst, NASA; experimental data visualisation: Steve Vincena, University of California, Los Angeles)

The real decades-long, if slightly bizarre, questions were thus: Just how are these particles accelerated from space down towards Earth? 

And how does one replicate the magnetosphere in a lab? 

Could someone please call the LAPD? 

The researchers’ answer to the frustrations of the past? Doing scaled laboratory experiments in a giant cylinder vacuum called the Large Plasma Device (LAPD), based at the Basic Plasma Science Facility of the University of California, Los Angeles. The University of Iowa, Wheaton College and the Space Science Institute also collaborated on this research.

Panoramic view of the Large Plasma Device (LAPD). (Image: Basic Plasma Science Facility, University of California, Los Angeles)

Here, their idea was to recreate conditions mirroring those of Earth’s auroral magnetosphere above the poles: the researchers needed to measure just a small population of electrons charging down the chamber at almost the same speed as the Alfvén waves (a bit like measuring only the fastest surfers paddling to catch an ocean wave).

To calculate their measurements, the team invented, tested, developed and refined precision instruments, such as a new type of electromagnetic probe, and a high-power antenna for launching Alfvén waves. They also exploited a recently developed field-particle technique. 

Next, the team launched the Alfvéns through the LAPD, a 1m-diameter cylinder vacuum spanning about 20m (more than double the length of an old London Routemaster bus). 

End view of Large Plasma Device (LAPD). (Image: Basic Plasma Science Facility, University of California, Los Angeles)

Wrapped in water-cooled electrical coils that can generate a force about 3,500 times stronger than Earth’s magnetic field in Los Angeles, the chamber was fired up with a plasma heated to an electron temperature of some 45,000°C. 

Finally, by combining measurements of the Alfvéns’ electric field as well as the electrons, the researchers say this challenging exercise reproduced the holy grail of aurora results — that is, a “unique signature” of electron acceleration by Landau Damping. The signature was further supported by numerical simulations and analytical modelling. 

Top view of Large Plasma Device (LAPD). (Image: Basic Plasma Science Facility, University of California, Los Angeles)

This, they announced during a press conference this week, provided the first direct test that Alfvén waves did unleash fast, aurora-creating electrons.

‘A result that appeals to our sense of awe’

The findings supplied “an important piece of the puzzle”, argued Wheaton College’s Jim Schroeder, an author on the study.  

“Alfvén waves are present above a large fraction of auroras, especially the bright and active auroras that occur during geomagnetic storms. Being able to say definitively that electrons are accelerated towards Earth in these conditions by surfing Alfvén waves helps us understand these brilliant auroral displays,” Schroeder said. “It’s a result that appeals to our sense of awe and wonder; our eyes have been drawn upwards by northern and southern lights for millennia.”

Alaskan Aurora (Aurora Borealis), or Northern Lights. (Image: Jean Beaufort, CC0 Public Domain licence)

Schroeder said that “understanding the physics of near-Earth space is practical too” as geomagnetic storms and the aurora could “adversely impact” this “region of space, heavily populated with satellites” for communication and navigation.

According to principal investigator Gregory Howes, of the University of Iowa, “the project required the development of specialised equipment and techniques over a number of years to show finally that Alfvén waves can accelerate electrons above the aurora. 

Aurora Australis, or Southern Lights, over Antarctica. (Image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

“After reproducing conditions in space above the aurora, our collaboration launched a large Alfvén wave through the machine and, after a tense wait while processing our measurements, we were thrilled to see we had finally succeeded in measuring the acceleration of the electrons as they surf on Alfvén waves.”

Reacting to the findings, Vyacheslav Lukin, US National Science Foundation director for plasma physics, noted the “experimental confirmation” of the aurora physics was due to the researchers’ “persistent ingenuity”. 

The results were “exciting”, added Michael Hahn, a research scientist in Columbia University’s astrophysics laboratory.

“Showing how Alfvén waves accelerate electrons to form the aurora are a great example of how the interplay between observational and laboratory astrophysics can advance astronomy,” Hahn said. “Making measurements directly in the magnetosphere is difficult. By reproducing similar conditions in the laboratory we can put the physics under a microscope and understand in detail what is going on.” DM/OBP

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.8% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.2% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.2% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.2%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options