‘Space hurricane’ spotted above Earth for first time ever

Weather

High altitude view of the slight curvature to the earth from the cockpit of an airplane 10 000 meters high (Getty Images).

(NEXSTAR) – A space hurricane has been observed for the first time in the upper atmosphere of earth, finally confirming the existence of the eye-catching phenomenon.

A team of scientists from the U.S., China, Norway and the U.K. made the retroactive discovery from observations recorded by satellites in August 2014. Their findings were published in late February in the journal Nature Communications.

“Until now, it was uncertain that space plasma hurricanes even existed, so to prove this with such a striking observation is incredible,” said Mike Lockwood, a space scientist at the University of Reading and coauthor of the study, in a statement.

A 3-D rendering of the movement of a space hurricane observed in earth’s upper atmosphere (Qing-He Zhang, Shandong University).

The hurricane was 1,000 km wide — or roughly the driving distance between New York and Detroit. The swirling mass of plasma rains electrons, rather than water, but otherwise relatively resembles the hurricanes we have on earth.

This particular hurricane spun counterclockwise for nearly eight hours before gradually fizzling.

“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,” Lockwood said.

Because plasma and magnetic fields are commonplace in the atmosphere of planets throughout the universe, the researchers assume the phenomena of space hurricanes are widespread.

While such hurricanes have been observed in the lower atmospheres of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, they’ve never been seen in the upper atmosphere of a planet.

Furthermore, the fact that it occurred during a period of low geomagnetic activity suggests space hurricanes “could be more relatively common within our solar system and beyond,” highlighting the “importance of improved monitoring of space weather.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect calculation for the width of the phenomenon relative to football fields. The story has been updated to remove that detail.

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