Max-planck-institut Fuer Extrate
The pattern of convection cells, or plasma-filled bubbles residing within Earth's magnetosphere, high above the Earth's polar caps. Different colors represent different convective motions of the plasma. To the right is a statistical map of the north pole's convection cells patterns; to the left is the south pole's.
updated 10/23/2007 1:12:32 PM ET 2007-10-23T17:12:32

Enormous bubbles of plasma trapped within Earth's magnetic fields have been fully mapped for the first time.

Scientists now think the bubbles of ionized gas, called convection cells, are strongly affected by pummeling from the sun's solar wind. Future observations of the cells could be used to monitor violent solar outbursts, such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which can harm satellites or astronauts in space.

"The results are a great achievement," said Philippe Escoubet, the European Space Agency (ESA) project scientist for the experiments aboard the Cluster satellites.

Stein Haaland, a scientist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, and his team used six years of data gathered by the four spacecraft to create the maps. "They show data collected over years is helping deepen our understanding of the Sun-Earth connection," Escoubet said.

Convection cells exist high above Earth's polar caps and are made of plasma, which is electron-stripped gas that is highly erratic. Earth's magnetosphere and atmosphere shelter the planet from high-energy solar particles, but the protective shells form an incomplete cocoon — so some of the radiation leaks in, is trapped and forms convection cells.

Scientists think understanding how such particles are trapped is crucial to safeguarding astronauts and satellites, such as GPS and telecommunications platforms.

Slideshow: Month in Space: January 2014 Prior to the Cluster satellites, only poor observations of convection cells could be made. The new statistical maps show that numbers of convection cells fluctuate between two and four, and that their shapes change as solar wind output fluctuates.

Haaland said the maps will inform future monitoring of convection cells. "It will be possible to map the region at any altitude, under any conditions with satellites, making our task easier," he said.

Haaland and his colleagues' work is detailed in recent issues of the journal Annales Geophysicae.

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