JUN 08, 2015 5:07 AM PDT

College Student Proves Plasma Tubes Exist

Very often, when referring to some simple theory or basic explanation of something, we hear "Well, it's not rocket science." Or someone might say sarcastically, "Well, give it the old college try then, will you?" Because clearly, college kids don't really know that much and rocket science is incredibly complex. Even if you take the college kids and the rockets out of the equation, and just ponder what really is out there in the universe, it's an almost unfathomable mystery in some ways, isn't it?
A computer imaging model of the Earth's magnetic field
Well guess who just figured out a major part of it? Some college kid, barely old enough to buy a drink in some parts of the world, was able to tell her professors, respected astronomers and yes, probably even a few rocket scientists all about the very complex phenomenon of plasma tubes in the Earth's magnetosphere.

Wait, what? Tubes? Of plasma? There's no such thing, it's a theory, and they don't exist. Well, it seems they do and this young student, Cleo Loi, an undergraduate at the School of Physics, University of Sydney has just shown everyone exactly where they are, even creating a 3D visualization of them.

The basic theory has always been that rays that are emitted by the sun, joined by supercharged particles coming from other celestial bodies in the solar system eventually reach Earth's atmosphere. The magnetic field, or magnetosphere of our planet causes these particles to bounce around a bit, scattering some to the polar ends of our planet, as well as to other parts like the inner layers of the magnetosphere, the ionosphere and the plasmasphere. That's a lot of spheres, and it's not a region of atmosphere that is well understood. That is where Ms. Loi's work came in.

Loi used data from the Murchison Wide Field Array Radiotelescope, which has 128 antennae spread out over a distance of about three kilometers, but she used it in a way no one has before. Taking measurements from two opposite ends of the telescope, one in the east, and one in the west, she was able to visualize the two sections of data much like our eyes visualize images and bring them together so that their depth can be perceived.

Loi said in a statement, ""For over 60 years, scientists believed these structures existed but by imaging them for the first time, we've provided visual evidence that they are really there. The discovery of the structures is important because they cause unwanted signal distortions that could, as one example, affect our civilian and military satellite-based navigation systems. So we need to understand them."

To say that Loi's work in this area has caused a Big Bang in the world of astronomy is an understatement. She estimates that each tube is between 10 and 15 km in width and could rise as high as 600 kilometers into the Earth's atmosphere. Her thesis was awarded the Bok Prize of the Astronomical Society of Australia for 2015 and was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

See the video below to hear Loi explain her work.
About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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