Australian student Cleo Loi found a way to visualize the giant plasma tubes that have been believed by science to exist in the earth's magnetosphere. A 3 minute video explaining the discovery can be watched below.
Big achievements in astronomy can also be made at young age. Twenty-something Australian student Cleo Loi devised a way to visualize the giant plasma tubes thought to exist in the earth atmosphere.
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By creatively using a radio telescope to see in 3D a team lead by Cloe Loi have detected the existence of tubular plasma structures in the inner layers of the magnetosphere surrounding the Earth.
"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," said Cleo Loi of CAASTRO at the University of Sydney.
Cleo Loi is the lead author on this research, undertaken as part of her award-winning undergraduate thesis and published in Geophysical Research Letters. In collaboration with international colleagues, she identified the structures.
"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," Cleo Loi said.
The region of space around the Earth occupied by its magnetic field, called the magnetosphere, is filled with plasma that is created by the atmosphere being ionized by sunlight.
The innermost layer of the magnetosphere is the ionosphere, and above that is the plasmasphere. They are embedded with a variety of strangely shaped plasma structures including, as has now been revealed, the tubes.
"We measured their position to be about 600 kilometers above the ground, in the upper ionosphere, and they appear to be continuing upwards into the plasmasphere. This is around where the neutral atmosphere ends, and we are transitioning to the plasma of outer space," explained Ms Loi.
Using the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), a radio telescope located in the Western Australian desert, Ms Loi found that she could map large patches of the sky and even exploit the MWA’s rapid snapshot capabilities to create a movie – effectively capturing the real-time motions of the plasma.
"We saw a striking pattern in the sky where stripes of high-density plasma neatly alternated with stripes of low-density plasma. This pattern drifted slowly and aligned beautifully with the Earth’s magnetic field lines, like aurorae," Cleo Loi said.
"We realized we may be onto something big and things got even better when we invented a new way of using the MWA."
The MWA consists of 128 antenna ‘tiles’ spread over an area roughly three by three kilometers that work together as one instrument – but by separating the signals from tiles in the east from the ones in the west, the astronomers gave the MWA the power to see in 3D.
"This is like turning the telescope into a pair of eyes, and by that we were able to probe the 3D nature of these structures and watch them move around. We were able to measure the spacing between them, their height above the ground and their steep inclination. This has never been possible before and is a very exciting new technique," said Cleo Loi.
This ability adds yet another accolade to the MWA’s name after it had already proven its worth as a powerful precursor instrument to the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), and now the MWA‘s 3D vision has the potential to provide many more in-depth analyses of the formation of plasma structures.
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Cleo Loi has been awarded the 2015 Bok Prize of the Astronomical Society of Australia for her work.