From Mice to Magnetospheres

A coworker just asked me a question about the magnetosphere, and in a quick online check, I came across the above image. I tend toward the nit-picky in matters concerning space weather, in large part because I attended a graduate program in “Space Physics and Astronomy” at Rice University. I see several problems with this image… Most disconcertingly, it makes the bow shock appear like a nearly solid boundary, with the interior and exterior vastly different in their texture and color; in fact, the bow shock simply represents the location where particles slow from supersonic (yes, there is a such a thing as sound speed in space). Furthermore, the little squiggly arrows presumably indicating particle motion through the magnetosheath look nothing like the actual flow. Finally Earth’s magnetic field should look more like a dipole, so all the field lines should not converge to a single point at the poles.

For contrast, allow me to reproduce a scene from the most recent space show produced by my institution, Cosmic Collisions:

We used data from the Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling as the basis for the sequence, so the effect is not quite so diagrammatic. The grey surface represents the bow shock; the bluish surface represents the exterior of the region dominated by Earth’s magnetic field. And note that the flow moves through the bow shock and around the Earth’s magnetic field. You can see more from the show (and more of the data) in a short piece produced for our “Science Bulletins” AstroViz segment.

Finally, speaking of alma maters, a space weather story from Cornell just appeared in my inbox. Solar flares may cause problems with GPS receivers—no great shakes if you’re driving your Lexus down I-10, but more problematic if you’re flying through dense fog on a commuter jet.