NASA Has Discovered X-Shaped Structures in the Ionosphere That Scientists Are Struggling to Explain

  • NASA’s GOLD mission has observed X-shaped crests in the ionosphere with no clear explanation.

  • Scientists previously believed these structures were the result of solar storms or intense volcanic eruptions.

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While most people search the sky for shapes in the clouds, NASA’s GOLD mission discovers them in the ionosphere, a region that’s part of Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Shapes in the ionosphere. The ionosphere extends 50 to 400 miles above the Earth. Its plasma particles become electrically charged when hit by the Sun’s radiation.

This process leaves a trail of ionized particles that facilitate long-distance travel of radio signals. The GOLD (Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk) mission has been monitoring these traces since 2018 and has recently found formations that NASA’s scientists can’t fully explain.

X-shaped crests. The GOLD team has been observing two dense particle crests in the ionosphere, one north and one south of the equator. Previously, scientists believed that these X-shaped ridges only occurred during solar storms or volcanic eruptions. However, they’ve recently observed these X-shapes even during periods of solar calm.

This discovery, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics, suggests that unknown factors influence the ionosphere. NASA scientist Jeffrey Klenzing believes there’s a complex interaction between the ionosphere and the lower atmosphere that experts currently don’t fully understand.

C-shaped bubbles. In addition to the X-shaped crests, the GOLD mission team has also detected C-shaped plasma bubbles. These bubbles normally appear long and straight, but new observations show that they can curve, forming a shape similar to the letter C and a reverse C.

Computational models indicate that winds on Earth, varying with altitude at the magnetic equator, create these shapes at more than 370-mile altitudes, suggesting substantial atmospheric turbulence, similar to the formation of a small-scale tornado.

A significant finding. Crests and plasma bubbles have the potential to disrupt radio and GPS signals, which can impact communication and navigation. If one of these bubbles moves through a critical signal, it could lead to a loss of communication or reduced accuracy in geopositioning.

Consequently, understanding these phenomena is crucial to enhancing our communication and navigation technologies and preventing interference.

Image | F. Laskar et al. (NASA)

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