Coronal Mass Ejection Induces Ionosphere Mass Ejection
Using NASA's Polar spacecraft, researchers have found the first direct evidence that bursts of energy
from the Sun can cause oxygen and other gases to gush from Earth's upper atmosphere. Space physicists
have observed that the flow of "polar wind" increased substantially when a storm from the Sun smacked
into Earth on September 24- 25, 1998. In effect, pressure from the solar ejection squeezed gas out of the
Scientists have known since the early 1980s that Earth's upper atmosphere leaks oxygen, helium, and
hydrogen ions (atoms that have gained or lost an electron) into space from regions near the poles. But it
was not until the Polar spacecraft flew through this fountain of ionized gas in September 1998 that
scientists confirmed that the flow of ions is caused by solar activity.
"We now have direct, quantifiable evidence that disturbances in the solar wind produce changes in the
flow of ions out of the ionosphere," said Dr. Thomas E. Moore of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center,
principal investigator for Polar's Thermal Ion Dynamics Experiment (TIDE). "This solar wind energy
essentially cooks the atmosphere off of the Earth." Moore's observations were presented on December 8
in San Francisco during the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union.
On September 22, 1998, the Sun ejected a mass of hot, ionized gas (plasma) toward Earth. This magnetic
cloud of plasma (known as a coronal mass ejection) increased the density and pressure of the solar wind
and produced a shock wave similar to a sonic boom. When that cloud arrived at Earth late on September
24, it rammed into and compressed Earth's magnetic shell in space, or magnetosphere. The shock and
pressure excited the plasma trapped in Earth's ionosphere to a point where some ions gained enough
energy to escape gravity and flow downwind of Earth.
The amount of oxygen and other gases lost from the ionosphere amounted to a few hundred tons,
roughly equivalent to the mass of oxygen inside the Louisiana Superdome. "This is the supply of plasma
that makes things interesting in space," said Moore. "Much of the gas ejected from the ionosphere is
caught in Earth's wake. It then flows back toward the Earth while being heated and accelerated by the
same processes that create auroral particles and the radiation belts."
The ionosphere is a series of invisible layers of ions and electrons that are suspended in Earth's
atmosphere at about 50 to 400 kilometers (25 to 250 miles) in altitude. These particles are produced
when the Sun's ultraviolet light ionizes the atoms and molecules in the upper atmosphere. The
ionosphere makes long distance radio communication possible by reflecting radio waves back to Earth.
It also is home to the aurora and the electrical currents that heat the atmosphere during magnetic
"Our research shows that Earth"s own ionosphere is a major contributor to the growth of space storms,"
said Dr. Barbara Giles, a co-investigator on the TIDE team and researcher at NASA-Goddard. "These new
observations will help us understand the conditions that enable space storms to form, thereby moving
one step closer to the forecasting of the most damaging storms."
Prior to the launch of Polar, such observations of ions flowing out of the ionosphere were nearly
impossible. But the TIDE instrument was specifically designed to neutralize the electrical charge that
naturally builds up on the surface of spacecraft due to sunlight (about 40 to 50 volts). By squirting a
small plume of Xenon ions and electrons, TIDE offsets the charge on the spacecraft and allows detectors
to observe cold plasmas like the oxygen ions seen during the September event.
PowerPoint Presentation not available at this time.
Official NASA Contact: Barbara Giles
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