Scientists from NASA and the National Science Foundation have discovered a way to combine ground and space observations to create an unprecedented view of upper atmosphere disturbances during space storms. The disturbances result from plumes of electrified plasma that form in the ionosphere. When the plasma plumes pass overhead, they impede low and high frequency radio communications and delay GPS navigation signals. Predicting space weather is a primary goal of the National Space Weather Program involving NASA, the foundation and several other federal agencies. The view researchers created allowed them to link movement of the plumes to processes that release plasma into space. Since the occurrence of plasma plumes in the ionosphere disrupts GPS signals, they provide a continuous monitor of these disturbances. Researchers discovered a link between GPS data and satellite images of the plasmasphere. The plasmasphere is a plasma cloud surrounding Earth above the ionosphere. It is being observed from NASA’s Imager for Magnetopause to Aurora Global Exploration satellite. The researchers discovered the motion of the ionospheric plumes corresponded to the ejection of plasma from the plasmasphere during space storms.
The combined observations allowed construction of an underlying picture of the processes during space storms, when the Earth’s magnetic field is buffeted by hot plasma from the sun. As the solar plasma blows by, it generates an electric field that is transmitted to the plasmasphere and ionosphere. This electric field propels the ionospheric and the plasmaspheric plasma out into space. For the first time, scientists can directly connect the plasma observed in the ionosphere with the plasmasphere plumes that extend many thousand of kilometers into space. The plumes degrade GPS signals in two primary ways. First, they cause position error by time delaying the propagation of GPS signals. Second, the turbulence they generate causes receivers to lose the signal through an effect known as scintillation.