A Close-Up Look at the Plasma Tubes That Encircle Earth

Article originally posted by Jes Greene on Modern Notion

Cleo Loi, a 23-year-old undergraduate student from the University of Sydney, hasshown that there are giant plasma tubes encircling Earth, something scientists have been trying to prove for over 60 years.

Loi used a radio telescope to survey the skies and found the tubes in Earth’s magnetosphere, a multi-layer magnetic field of plasma ionized by sunlight. Loi manipulated the telescope and essentially created a 3D real-time movie of the plasma moving. Loi explains:

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.

In addition, she also saw that the plasma tubes act with a surprisingly orderly behavior:

We found that the ionisation patterns in the ionosphere are quite structured. They flow in these tubular structures that are aligned with the Earth’s magnetic field. And they can then move of their own accord.

Though scientists have theorized why the plasma tubes exist, no one had actually seen them before. Being an undergrad student with no background in the studies, scientists were skeptical about Loi’s findings and believed there was something wrong with the images:

They had never seen this type of thing before. No one had looked at the data in this way before. A lot of people were pretty convinced it was some problem with the imaging, that it was nothing to get excited about.

But, paired with Loi’s methodical work and stubborn tenacity, she eventually won scientists over.

Loi doesn’t go into detail about why the plasma tubes are there or what they do, but she does say that studying them could help us both with future technological and with scholarly research. According to

Ms Loi said the drifting plasma tubes could distort astronomical data, especially satellite-based navigation systems. It may also mean we need to re-evaluate our thinking about how galaxies, stars and clouds of gas behave and what they look like.

You can read her study in Geophysical Research Letters.


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