NASA successfully maps Earth's magnetic field

- More than a year ago, NASA launched several balloons into the atmosphere above Antarctica in hopes of understanding more about Earth’s magnetic field, that invisible shield that protects Earth from the harmful radiation and solar particles from the sun.  The analysis is complete and NASA has learned way more than they intended.

A BARREL balloon launches over Halley Research Station during the Antarctic summer of 2013-2014. The BARREL mission was created to observe precipitating electrons from Earth’s radiation belts, supplementing observations by NASA’s Van Allen Probes. During a January 2014 solar storm, BARREL measured solar electrons in addition to radiation belt electrons, allowing the team to map how parts of Earth’s magnetic field shift and change during a solar storm.  Credits: NASA/BARREL


NASA released what they are calling the miniature membranous balloons, which is part of the Balloon Array for Radiation-belt Relativistic Electron Losses, or BARREL, campaign for short back in the Antarctic summer 2 years ago.  The original hope was that NASA would learn how many electrons would float downward from the folding magnetic field near the South Pole and potentially giving them a tool to map part of the magnetic field around the planet.  But they got more than they bargained for.  Not only did they measure the number of electrons, but they were also able to completely map the magnetic field itself, including finding the boundary of the field tens of thousands of miles from Earth.

Six BARREL balloons flew above Antarctica during a January 2014 solar storm. The different-colored tracks trace out the paths of the balloons. Together, the measurements from these balloons showed how Earth's magnetic field shifts during a solar storm. The BARREL balloons were launched from Antarctic research stations SANAE IV and Halley VI.  Credits: NASA/Halford, et al


This is BIG news when it comes to understanding how the suns particles intercept the Earth with the solar winds, a term used to describe the constant bombardment of particles from the sun as Earth itself lives in the extended atmosphere of our nearest star.  With time, this may help us further understand solar storms and how we can protect ourselves from them… which can often wreak havoc on satellites, power grids, and any and all electrical systems.  The BARREL project continues as several permanent stations have been set up in Antarctica to continue measuring changes in the amount of electrons entering the lower atmosphere.


Near Earth’s magnetic poles, some of Earth’s magnetic field – shown as red in this diagram – loops out into space and connects back to Earth. But some of Earth’s polar magnetic field connects directly to the sun’s magnetic field, shown here in white. Balloons from NASA’s BARREL mission mapped the boundary between these two types of magnetic connection as it shifted and changed during an event called a solar storm.  Credits: NASA

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