Recent satellite observations have revealed the largest breach yet seen in the magnetic field that protects Earth from most of the sun's violent blasts, researchers reported Tuesday.
The discovery was made last summer by Themis, a fleet of five small NASA satellites.
Scientists have long known that the Earth's magnetic field, which guards against severe space weather, is similar to a drafty old house that sometimes lets in violent eruptions of charged particles from the sun. Such a breach can cause brilliant auroras or disrupt satellite and ground communications.
Observations from Themis show the Earth's magnetic field occasionally develops two cracks, allowing solar wind — a stream of charged particles spewing from the sun at 1 million mph (1.6 million kph) — to penetrate the Earth's upper atmosphere.
Last summer, Themis calculated a layer of solar particles to be at least 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) thick in the outermost part of the Earth's magnetosphere, the largest tear of the protective shield found so far.
"It was growing rather fast," Themis scientist Marit Oieroset of the University of California, Berkeley told an American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.
The research was funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation.
Scientists initially believed the greatest solar breach occurs when the Earth's and sun's magnetic fields are pointed in opposite directions. But data from Themis found the opposite to be true. Twenty times more solar wind passed into the Earth's protective shield when the magnetic fields were aligned, Oieroset said.
The Themis results could have bearing on how scientists predict the severity of solar storms and their effects on power grids, airline and military communications and satellite signals.
Earlier this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the first sunspot of a new 11-year cycle has appeared in the sun's northern hemisphere.
Jimmy Raeder, a physicist with the University of New Hampshire, predicted a more intense solar cycle. That's because the Earth's and the sun's magnetic fields will be in sync at the cycle's peak, expected in 2012, that will cause an influx of solar particles, Raeder said.
The Themis satellites were launched to find the source of brief powerful geomagnetic disturbances in the Earth's atmosphere.