Researchers have used satellite observations to identify what they’re calling a “space hurricane” in Earth’s upper atmosphere, Nature reports. The results, published last month in the journal Nature Communications, represent the first time a space hurricane has ever been detected over our planet.
The team spotted the churning mass of charged particles—ionized gas called plasma—hovering several hundred miles above the North Pole during a retrospective analysis of data collected in August 2014, reports Doyle Rice for USA Today.
“Until now, it was uncertain that space plasma hurricanes even existed, so to prove this with such a striking observation is incredible,” Mike Lockwood, an astrophysicist at the University of Reading and co-author of the paper, in a statement.
The space hurricane described in the paper measured roughly 600 miles across and rained down charged electrons instead of water for nearly eight hours as it spun counter-clockwise at speeds up to 4,700 miles-per-hour, per the paper.
The 2014 space hurricane occurred during a period of relatively low geomagnetic activity, which created a puzzle, since it meant the space hurricane wasn’t the result of Earth’s ionosphere being lashed by the solar winds of a stormy sun.
“Tropical storms are associated with huge amounts of energy, and these space hurricanes must be created by unusually large and rapid transfer of solar wind energy and charged particles into the Earth’s upper atmosphere,” explains Lockwood in the statement. To try to figure out what was going on the team created a computer model, which suggested that the rapid transfer of energy may have occurred because of reconnecting interplanetary magnetic field lines, reports Michelle Starr for Science Alert.
The researchers say finding a space hurricane during a period of low geomagnetic activity increases the likelihood they are a common occurrence in the universe.
“Plasma and magnetic fields in the atmosphere of planets exist throughout the universe, so the findings suggest space hurricanes should be a widespread phenomena,” says Lockwood in the statement.
Researchers say this first observation is unlikely to be the last. Qing-He Zhang, a space scientist at Shandong University who led the new research, tells Becky Ferreira of Vice that his team has already identified “tens of space hurricane events” in the same trove of satellite data that produced this first confirmed instance of the phenomenon.
Studying these other space hurricanes is of interest not just for the sake of gaining knowledge about the universe, but because it could help us get better at predicting space weather, which can disrupt satellites, radar and communication systems vital to life on Earth.