Strange X and C shapes discovered in Earth’s ionosphere

NASA scientists have just identified mysterious shapes flying over Earth, but don’t worry, that doesn’t mean aliens are about to strike.

Using an imaging instrument called Global Scale Limb and Disc Observations (GOLD), experts discovered strange X and C shapes, which have appeared in surprising places at surprising times.

Researchers found the structures bouncing around the ionosphere – the area where Earth’s atmosphere meets space – and say the discovery could help improve radio communications and space weather forecasts.

The ionosphere — which lies about 50 to 400 miles (roughly 80 to 644 kilometers) above the planet’s surface — gets electrically charged as sunlight hits it during the day.

This creates plasma belts of charged particles that are further affected by the Earth’s magnetic field, such as Scientific alertnotes.

And it is these plasma bubbles that form the X and C shapes that have been observed.

Observations from NASA’s GOLD mission show charged particles in the ionosphere forming an X shape on October 7, 2019(F. Laskar et al.)

Previous studies have shown the coalescence of plasma ridges forming an X shape after solar storms and large volcanic eruptions.

However, the new data (which was published in Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics), reveals that they can also form in so-called “quiet times”—suggesting that more localized factors also play a role.

Computer models show that lower atmospheric conditions may be pulling the plasma down, the scientists note in their study.

“Previous merger reports were only during disturbed geomagnetic conditions,” Fazlul Laskar, an ionospheric physicist at the University of Colorado who co-authored the paper, explained in a statement to NASA.

“It is an unexpected feature during conditions of geomagnetic quiescence.”

Experts have also been puzzled by the appearance of C-shaped and opposite bubbles in the plasma, which were thought to be generated by winds on Earth.

And yet, GOLD has recorded these Cs forming surprisingly close together – sometimes as close as 634 kilometers (400 miles) apart – which, again, suggests that more localized factors are at play – whether it’s a tornado or something else.

These tight clusters of C-forms appear to be relatively rare at the moment, with only two observed by GOLD so far. However, the researchers intend to continue their investigation to find out what is causing them to form in the ionosphere.

“Within that close proximity, these two oppositely shaped plasma bubbles were never thought of, nor imaged,” ionospheric physicist Deepak Karan, of the University of Colorado, said in the same statement.

C-shaped and reverse C-shaped plasma bubbles appear close together in the ionosphere on October 12, 2020 and December 26, 2021(D. Karan et al.)

The plasma in the ionosphere is essential for enabling radio waves to travel long distances, meaning disruptions in the ionosphere can have an impact on important communications and navigation infrastructure.

This study and the GOLD data serve as further evidence of how innovations in scientific research and technology are helping us discover more about Earth and the Universe as a whole.

Astrophysicist Jeffrey Klenzing of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, who was not directly involved in the study, pointed out: “The fact that we have very different bubble shapes so close together tells us that the dynamics of the atmosphere is more complex that we are expected.”

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