Tag Archives: magnetic field

Though you may be familiar with the phrase “molten core,” the reality is that Earth’s inner core is actually solid, and it’s the outer core that surrounds this enormous ball of heavy metals which remains liquid. Image: geek.com

When Earth’s solid inner core formed: 1 to 1.5 billion years ago

Our planet’s magnetic field is the ultimate shield that guards life from the elements of space, particularly radiation. It’s enough to look at Mars, which also had a magnetic field but only for 500 million years, to see what could happen were it absent: what was likely once a “blue planet”, filled with vasts oceans of liquid water, maybe even vegetation and other life forms, is now a barred red rock.

This invisible, protective shield likely existed shortly after the planet formed 4.5 billion years ago, when it was still a big blob of molten rock. It was only after the super hot iron liquid core lost enough heat to freeze (more properly said, it solidified) did the field become strong enough to allow life to foster. Previous studies estimated this happened sometime between 500 million and 2 billion years ago. A more refined analysis by University of Liverpool places the timeline between 1 billion and 1.5 billion years ago.

Though you may be familiar with the phrase “molten core,” the reality is that Earth’s inner core is actually solid, and it’s the outer core that surrounds this enormous ball of heavy metals which remains liquid. Image: geek.com

Though you may be familiar with the phrase “molten core,” the reality is that Earth’s inner core is actually solid, and it’s the outer core that surrounds this enormous ball of heavy metals which remains liquid. Image: geek.com

Once the planet cooled down, it formed an outer crust while the inside was still liquid – like a glazed liquor candy. As the planet cooled further, heat was transferred from the core until it froze partially: the inner core became solid despite being smocking hot (at great pressure, matter like iron can still stay solid despite thousands of degrees Celsius), while the outer core stayed liquid. This process is called nucleation. The molten iron in the outer core is in constant churning movement, driven by convection as the outer core loses heat to the static mantle. This process is what keeps the planetary magnetic field floating above, and once the inner core solidified the field intensified, Liverpool researchers claim.

planet-core-2

Image: Wikipedia

To find out when the nucleation first began, Andy Biggin, a paleomagnetism researcher at the University of Liverpool, analyzed a database filled with the orientation and intensity of magnetic fields from ancient rocks. For instance, basalt contains magnetic minerals and as the rock is solidifying, these minerals align themselves in the direction of the magnetic field. By studying really ancient rocks, you can find out how the magnetic field was positioned at the time that these solidified. It’s very handy, and provides one of the strongest evidence in favor of the theory of plate tectonics.

What Biggin and colleagues found that the steep increase in Earth’s magnetic field intensity occurred between  1.5 billion and 1 billion years ago. Moreover, the researchers were able to calculate that the solid inner core increases in diameter with 1 millimeter every year. “This finding could change our understanding of the Earth’s interior and its history,” Biggin said.

While the Mars’ story might startle some, the good news is that Earth’s magnetic field is destined to be just as strong for another billion years, the researchers report in Nature. We have other problems to solve before that.

Watch: How Ants React to a Ringing iPhone

As soon as the phone starts ringing, these ants have a military-like reaction, forming a circle around the device. But why do they do this? The answer is almost certainly ‘due to magnetic fields’.

Like many other insects, ants rely on magnetic fields to find their way around – they have internal magnetic compasses that help them navigate. When the phone starts ringing, the radio waves likely disturb their internal compass and this makes them want to avoid the phone. Australian entomologist Nigel Andrew from the University of New England:

“A lot of ants use magnetism to orientate themselves. [They] have magnetic receptors in their antennae,” he said. “If they’re travelling long distances they use magnetic cues from Earth to know if they are going north, east, south or west.”

But even if we weren’t talking about ants, forming ordered circles is actually surprisingly natural. Many organisms (ants included) tend to form circles, as ustralian social insect researcher Simon Robson from Queensland’s James Cook University (JCU) told ninemsn. 

“There are many ants that actually start forming in a circle without the phone,” Mr Robson said.”It’s an unavoidable consequence of their communication systems. Having the ants together like that, the shape of the phone may have something to do with it and the vibration might get them a bit more excited, but a lot of ants will do it even without the phone.”

In the meantime, the video has gone viral and is delighting millions of viewers around the world. Now, you also have an explanation for it.

Scientists find how worms brains’ feel magnetism

It’s no secret that many animals can sense the Earth’s magnetic field, but until now, researchers didn’t know exactly how they could do this – what the sensor was. Now, a team from the University of Texas at Austin has found a simple, antenna-like structure in the brain of the simple worm C. Elegans that appears to be able to detect magnetic fields.

The neural system of the C. Elegans worm. Image via SFU.

Discovered in an earthworm named Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans for short), the sensor is basically a neural ending, protruding from the brain. This gives scientists hope that other animals also exhibit the same feature.

“Chances are that the same molecules will be used by cuter animals like butterflies and birds,” said Jon Pierce-Shimomura, assistant professor of neuroscience in the College of Natural Sciences and member of the research team. “This gives us a first foothold in understanding magnetosensation in other animals.”

The study’s lead author is Andrés Vidal-Gadea, a former postdoctoral researcher in the College of Natural Sciences at UT Austin, now a faculty member at Illinois State University; he also noted that worms are just some of the animals that have a way to detect magnetic fields – animals as diverse as geese, sea turtles, bees and wolves are known to navigate using the Earth’s magnetic field. Vidal-Gadea chose to focus on worms, and he was successful.

“I’m fascinated by the prospect that magnetic detection could be widespread across soil dwelling organisms,” said Vidal-Gadea.

Inside the head of the worm C. elegans, the TV antenna-like structure at the tip of the AFD neuron (green) is the first identified sensor for Earth’s magnetic field. Illustration by Andrés Vidal-Gadea

They used hungry C. elegans worms and studied their behavior. They initially noticed that they generally tend to probe for food downwards, but when a coil was turned on and induced a strong magnetic was created, the worms would simply dig around randomly. They then moved on to study the worm’s neurons, and found the sensor.

In 2012, scientists from Baylor College of Medicine announced the discovery of brain cells in pigeons that process information about magnetic fields, but they couldn’t find the exact structure which acts like a sensor.

“It’s been a competitive race to find the first magnetosensory neuron,” said Pierce-Shimomura. “And we think we’ve won with worms, which is a big surprise because no one suspected that worms could sense the Earth’s magnetic field.”

Mercury has magnetic field, astronomers report

The MESSENGER spacecraft spent four years orbiting Mercury, gathering valuable information and sending it back to Earth. But even in its final moments, as it crashed towards the surface of the planet, the spacecraft still did its job – it reported that Mercury has a magnetic field, likely millions of years old.

MASCS/MDIS color mosaics of Mercury. Image credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Mercury is the smallest planet in our solar system, and it’s also the closest to the Sun. It has no atmosphere, and as a result, experiences dramatic temperature shifts, from −173 °C (−280 °F) at night, as it’s facing away from the Sun, to 427 °C (800 °F) during the day. The MESSENGER shuttle was sent to study the planet; launched in 2004, it orbited Mercury from 2011 to 2015, before performing a planned crash onto the surface.

Scientists have suspected for quite a while that Mercury has a significant magnetic field, and MESSENGER confirmed it. Besides Earth, Mercury is the only rocky planet in the inner solar system to have such a large magnetic field. While today it is nowhere near as strong as that of our own planet, it is believed that at one point in the past, Mercury’s magnetic field was 100 times stronger than that of the Earth. We still don’t know for sure why this field exists, but it’s likely that it is due to a liquid core. Another observation which seems to confirm this theory is the fact that the planet’s crust seems to be thicker towards the equator and thinner at the pole. The core accounts for more than 85% of the radius of the planet.

Unfortunately, Mercury’s magnetic field was to small to properly analyze, and MESSENGER had little time to conduct measurements as it was crashing, Mercury’s proximity to the Sun only accounts for about a third of the magnetic influence the planet exerts, so astronomers are still not entirely clear what to make of things, but it seems clear that even after four years of close studies, Mercury still has its secrets.

 

 

The Van Allen Probes (formerly known as the Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP)) were designed to help us understand the sun’s influence on Earth and near-Earth space by studying the Earth’s radiation belts on various scales of space and time. Image: NASA

Star Trek-like shield discovered in Earth’s orbit shelters our planet from ‘killer electrons’

Many thousands of miles above our planet’s surface, electrons whiz through close to the speed of light. These electrons can streak past Earth in under five minutes, but can  also become dangerous and have been known to destroy satellites and even injure astronauts in extreme cases. Most of the time, however, our gear and astronauts can rest safe since scientists have discovered what’s called a invisible shield or barrier lying within the rims of the Van Allen Radiation Belts that’s impenetrable to the relativistic electrons. So, despite their intense energies, the electrons can’t come close than 11,000 km from the Earth’s surface.

Shielded from harm’s way

Charged gas particles interact with Earth's radiation belts to create a barrier against relativistic electrons. Image: MIT

Charged gas particles interact with Earth’s radiation belts to create a barrier against relativistic electrons. Image: MIT

The discovery was made based on data collected by NASA’s Van Allen Probes—twin crafts that are orbiting within the harsh environments of the Van Allen radiation belts. These belts can be seen as one big torus of energetic charged particles around Earth, trapped by Earth’s magnetic field. These extend from circa 650km (inner ring) to 65,000 km (outer ring) above the Earth. The existence of two belts, sometimes considered as a single belt of varying intensity, was confirmed from information secured by launching the first U.S. earth satellite, Explorer I, sent up during the International Geophysical Year of 1957–58. The belts were named for James A. Van Allen, the American astrophysicist who first predicted the belts and then was first to interpret the findings of the Explorer satellite.

“It’s a very unusual, extraordinary, and pronounced phenomenon,” says John Foster, associate director of MIT’s Haystack Observatory. “What this tells us is if you parked a satellite or an orbiting space station with humans just inside this impenetrable barrier, you would expect them to have much longer lifetimes. That’s a good thing to know.”

Data collected over 20 months suggested there’s a “exceedingly sharp” barrier against ultra-relativistic electrons also called “killer electrons” because of their havoc wrecking potential. Oddly enough, this barrier helds steady even during times of exceeding blasts of electrons, moved forward by solar storms. Left scratching their heads, MIT researchers tried to figure out what was keeping this shield up and considered several possibilities, including effects from the Earth’s magnetic field and transmissions from ground-based radios.

A cutaway model of the radiation belts with the 2 RBSP satellites flying through them. The radiation belts are two donut-shaped regions encircling Earth, where high-energy particles, mostly electrons and ions, are trapped by Earth’s magnetic field. This radiation is a kind of “weather” in space, analogous to weather on Earth, and can affect the performance and reliability of our technologies, and pose a threat to astronauts and spacecraft. Image: NASA

A cutaway model of the radiation belts with the 2 RBSP satellites flying through them. The radiation belts are two donut-shaped regions encircling Earth, where high-energy particles, mostly electrons and ions, are trapped by Earth’s magnetic field. This radiation is a kind of “weather” in space, analogous to weather on Earth, and can affect the performance and reliability of our technologies, and pose a threat to astronauts and spacecraft. Image: NASA

 

First, the researchers looked the South Atlantic Anomaly – a patch in Earth’s magnetic field, just over South America, where the magnetic field strength is about 30% weaker than in any other region. The reasoning was that if Earth’s magnetic field was indeed responsible for the shield, then incoming electrons should fall deeper into the Earth’s atmosphere and sink into the ‘hole’. There was no such thing and the killer electrons stayed put at 11,000 km above the planet’s surface. Long-range, very-low-frequency (VLF) radio transmissions can leak into the upper atmosphere, but upon closer inspection researchers found that these could only deflect moderate energy levels, posing little shielding against the energy intensive relativistic electrons.

“It’s almost like theses electrons are running into a glass wall in space,” said Baker in a UC press release. “Somewhat like the shields created by force fields on Star Trek that were used to repel alien weapons, we are seeing an invisible shield blocking these electrons. It’s an extremely puzzling phenomenon.”

A pale Blue Dot, vulnerable, but wearing a double sweater

The Van Allen Probes (formerly known as the Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP)) were designed to help us understand the sun’s influence on Earth and near-Earth space by studying the Earth’s radiation belts on various scales of space and time. Image: NASA

The Van Allen Probes (formerly known as the Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP)) were designed to help us understand the sun’s influence on Earth and near-Earth space by studying the Earth’s radiation belts on various scales of space and time. Image: NASA

A geographic representation of ultra-relativistic electron fluxes, based on orbital tracks of the Van Allen Probe B spacecraft projected onto the geographical equatorial plane. As the spacecraft precesses in its elliptical orbit around the Earth, it forms a “spirograph” pattern in the Earth-centered coordinate system. Inside of this radial distance is an almost complete absence of electrons, forming the “slot” region. The superimposed circle shows a sharp, distinctive inner boundary for ultra-relativistic electrons, and how generally symmetric this boundary is around Earth. Image: Courtesy of the researchers/Haystack Observatory

A geographic representation of ultra-relativistic electron fluxes, based on orbital tracks of the Van Allen Probe B spacecraft projected onto the geographical equatorial plane. As the spacecraft precesses in its elliptical orbit around the Earth, it forms a “spirograph” pattern in the Earth-centered coordinate system. Inside of this radial distance is an almost complete absence of electrons, forming the “slot” region. The superimposed circle shows a sharp, distinctive inner boundary for ultra-relativistic electrons, and how generally symmetric this boundary is around Earth. Image: Courtesy of the researchers/Haystack Observatory

Luckily, the twin probes were equipped with instruments that could measure  electrons’ pitch angle—the degree to which an electron’s motion is parallel or perpendicular to the Earth’s magnetic field. The measurements revealed that the electrons slowly rotate their paths  causing them to fall, parallel to a magnetic field line, into Earth’s upper atmosphere, where they are likely to collide with neutral atoms and disappear. It was later found that a peculiar phenomenon called “plasmaspheric hiss” – very low-frequency electromagnetic waves in the Earth’s upper atmosphere that, when played through a speaker, resemble static, or white noise – was the actual culprit.

The hiss waves are believed to travel through a cloud of electrically charged gas that is known to surround Earth, starting at an altitude of 600 miles.  This cloud, known as the plasmasphere, interacts with the high-energy electrons, scattering from their paths.

“It’s like looking at the phenomenon with new eyes, with a new set of instrumentation, which give us the detail to say, ‘Yes, there is this hard, fast boundary,’” Foster says.

It’s amazing how safe guarded our planet is. We have an atmosphere, a magnetic field, the radiation belts, the plasmasphere and who knows what else. If anyone had any doubt how precious and special this planet is, look no further.

Findings appeared in the journal Nature.

Magnetic Mirror reflects Light like No Other. Opens new suit of Optical Applications

In Lewis Caroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871), the sequel to the classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice again enters a fantastical world, this time by climbing through a mirror into the world that she can see beyond it. Though far from Alice’s spectacular feat, scientists at the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico demonstrated a new type of mirror that behaves like no other.

A mirror without metals

magnetic_mirror

Artist’s impression of a comparison between a magnetic mirror with cube shaped resonators (left) and a standard metallic mirror (right). The incoming and outgoing electric field of light (shown as alternating red and white bands) illustrates that the magnetic mirror retains light’s original signature while a standard metallic mirror reverses it upon reflection. Credit: S. Liu et al.

A conventional, metal coated mirror not only reverses the image, but also the light’s electric fields as well. This is because the mirror interacts with the electrical component of electromagnetic radiation. Of course, for those of us who use mirrors casually this physical alteration makes no difference, but it can become a real nuisance for physicists working on various optical and light absorbing/reflecting materials like solar cells, lasers and such. This becomes most intruding at the mirror’s surface, at the point of reflection where the opposite incoming and outgoing electrical fields produce a canceling effect. Yet, scientists in the US have made a breakthrough after they placed nanoscale antennas at or very near the surface of so-called “magnetic mirrors.”

“We have achieved a new milestone in magnetic mirror technology by experimentally demonstrating this remarkable behavior of light at infrared wavelengths. Our breakthrough comes from using a specially engineered, non-metallic surface studded with nanoscale resonators,” said Michael Sinclair, co-author on the Optica paper and a scientist at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA who co-led a research team with fellow author and Sandia scientist Igal Brener.

Unlike silver and other metals, however, there is no natural material that reflects light magnetically. Magnetic fields can reflect and even bottle-up charged particles like electrons and protons. But photons, which have no charge, pass through freely. To overcome this predicament, the researchers devised a matematerial – a material that can’t be found in nature, artificially created to suit certain needs – made up of nanoscale cube-shaped resonators, based on the element tellurium, each considerably smaller than the width of a human hair and even tinier than the wavelengths of infrared light, which is essential to achieve magnetic-mirror behavior at these incredibly short wavelengths.

 “The size and shape of the resonators are critical,” explained Sinclair “as are their magnetic and electrical properties, all of which allow them to interact uniquely with light, scattering it across a specific range of wavelengths to produce a magnetic mirror effect.”

Typically, this sort of solution is practical only for long microwave frequencies, which limits the scope of applications to microwave antennas, mainly. The  two-dimensional array of non-metallic dielectric resonators, however, overcomes these limitations – all without loss of signal. To prove their design actually works like a magnetic mirror, the Sandia scientists used a technique called time-domain spectroscopy.

“Our results clearly indicated that there was no phase reversal of the light,” remarked Sheng Liu, Sandia postdoctoral associate and lead author on the Optica paper. “This was the ultimate demonstration that this patterned surface behaves like an optical magnetic mirror.”

Next, the researchers plan on demonstrating magnetic mirrors at even shorter wavelengths.  where extremely broad applications can be found.

“If efficient magnetic mirrors could be scaled to even shorter wavelengths, then they could enable smaller photodetectors, solar cells, and possibly lasers,” Liu concluded.

Dolphins can sense the Earth’s Magnetic Field

As if dolphins weren’t special enough, scientists have added another quality to the list: they can sense our planet’s magnetic field.

Bottle nose dolphins navigate using the magnetic field. Image via Deviantart, Animal Photos.

A surprising variety of animals can sense the Earth’s magnetic field – bees, birds, salmon, frogs, sea turtles, salamanders, lobsters, and rodents; now, you can also add dolphins to that list. French researchers have shown that, just like some of their whale relatives, dolphins are attracted to magnets and can sense varieties in magnetic fields. They do this by having magnetite crystals in their brains.

This is not the first time this issue is discussed. Previous research has indicated, based on the dolphins’ migration routes, that they can in fact orient themselves based on magnetic information, but there was no direct study of this issue. Another hint was the fact that when dolphins get lost, they usually get lost in places where there is a weak magnetic field.

To find experimental evidence of this theory, researchers at the Université de Rennes in France investigated six bottlenose dolphins born in captivity that were kept at the French animal park Planète Sauvage in a delphinarium, an outdoor facility of four pools covering more than 21,500 square feet of water. They watched how the dolphins react to a plastic barrel containing either a strongly magnetized neodymium block or a demagnetized one which were otherwise identical in form and density.

The dolphins are naturally curious, so they approached the barrel in both cases, but did so 30 seconds faster when it contained the strongly magnetized block. This is, they argue, enough evidence to show clearly that the dolphins sense the magnetic field.

“We conclude that dolphins are able to discriminate the two stimuli on the basis of their magnetic properties, a prerequisite for magnetoreception-based navigation”, they write in the study.

Journal Reference [open source]: Dorothee Kremers, Juliana López Marulanda, Martine Hausberger, Alban Lemasson. Behavioural evidence of magnetoreception in dolphins: detection of experimental magnetic fieldsNaturwissenschaften September 2014

Swarm constellation over Earth. Credit: ESA/AOES Medialab

Earth’s magnetic field 10 times weaker than previous year. Is it about to flip?

Schematic illustration of Earth's magnetic field.

Schematic illustration of Earth’s magnetic field.

Over the past six months, the Earth’s magnetic field – the bubble that protects our planet from incoming radiation and solar winds – has weakened by a factor of ten than what’s been registered in previous years. According to the European Space Agency (ESA), this discrepancy might indicate that the magnetic field is about to flip.

An invisible shield

Magnetic fields surround electric currents, and similarly Earth’s magnetic field is created by circulating electic currents from the planet’s molten metalic core. The Earth’s magnetic field is similar to that of a bar magnet tilted 11 degrees from the spin axis of the Earth.Thus, true north (defined by the direction to the north rotational pole) does not coincide with magnetic north (defined by the direction to the north magnetic pole) and compass directions must be corrected by fixed amounts at given points on the surface of the Earth to yield true directions.

The magnetic field of the Earth is fairly weak on the surface. Actually, because the Earth’s magnetic field is so weak, a compass is nothing but a detector for very slight magnetic fields created by anything. This is why you can use a compass to detect the small magnetic field produced by a wire carrying a current. Also, your compass needs to have a lightweight magnet and a frictionless bearing for the needle to turn, otherwise there simply isn’t enough strength to move it.

Most of the incoming space radiation and solar storms that pounds the planet each moment is reflected by our atmosphere, but the magnetic field or so contributes significantly to this bubble shield that shelters precious life. However, were the magnetic field to disappear entirely tomorrow, it wouldn’t mean the end of the world. Sure, we’d see an increase in surface radiation and rate of cancer development, but definitely not catastrophic.

Don’t flip just yet

June 2014 magnetic field. Credit: ESA/DTU Space

June 2014 magnetic field. Credit: ESA/DTU Space

It turns out the planet reverses its polarity every 450,000 years, and the last reversal happened about 780,000 years ago. As such, over the course of its geological history, our planet has went through countless polarity shifts, with little consequences to life. From what we know, there was no extinction ever caused by the magnetic poles flipping.

Each flip is accompanied by a change in the strength of the field – this is something completely normal and natural, being part of the cycle. ESA’s three-satellite Swarm confirms the general trend of the field’s weakening, with the most dramatic declines over the Western Hemisphere, according to measurements. The latest measurements also confirm the movement of magnetic North towards Siberia. What comes as a surprise, though, is the extent of this field weakening.

“Researchers estimated the field was weakening about 5 percent per century, but new data revealed the field is actually weakening at 5 percent per decade, or 10 times faster than thought,” explains Kelly Dickerson at LiveScience.

Scientists used to expect the next flip might come in 2,000 years or so, but in light of these recent findings, the flip might occur much sooner. Compasses would show south instead of north, while grids and communications might become affected. Really, nothing bad would happen apart from a paradigm shift – always painful for most people – yet still better than any mass extinction.

Swarm constellation over Earth. Credit: ESA/AOES Medialab

Swarm constellation over Earth. Credit: ESA/AOES Medialab

Over the coming months, scientists will analyse the data to unravel the magnetic contributions from other sources, namely the mantle, crust, oceans, ionosphere and magnetosphere.

“These initial results demonstrate the excellent performance of Swarm,” said Rune Floberghagen, ESA’s Swarm Mission Manager.

“With unprecedented resolution, the data also exhibit Swarm’s capability to map fine-scale features of the magnetic field.”

Jenny Ricken / Univ. of Duisberg-Essen via AFP - Getty Images

Dogs can sense Earth’s magnetic field… while pooping

Every dog owner can attest that canines are remarkable navigators, like some sort of living, breathing compasses. For some time, researchers have suspected that they can sense Earth’s magnetic field and use it in turn for navigation. A recent study confirmed this as a fact, however the findings came after studying the dogs in one of their most intimate poses – while pooping. Apparently, in stable conditions, dogs always relieve themselves while facing either north or south.

Led by zoologist Hynek Burda of Germany’s University of Duisburg-Essen, the researchers closely followed 70 dogs of 37 breeds for two years. Initially, the dogs didn’t seem to follow any particular pattern while going on with their business. After taking in account, however, things like the time of the day, the position of the sun, wind direction and, of course, the slight daily variation in the Earth’s magnetic field a whole new level of appreciation was revealed.

“The emerging picture of the analysis of the categorized data is as clear as [it is] astounding: Dogs prefer alignment along the magnetic north-south axis, but only in periods of calm magnetic field conditions,” said Burda.

Alignment of a sampling of dogs while defecating during stable geomagnetic conditions. Photo: Hart et al. / Frontiers in Zoology

Alignment of a sampling of dogs while defecating during stable geomagnetic conditions. Photo: Hart et al. / Frontiers in Zoology

Poop compass

So, dogs will always poop or pee facing north or south during stable conditions. The study not only proves that dogs can sense the Earth’s magnetic field, but also exhibit specific behavior in response to natural magnetic field variations. To our current knowledge, they’re the only mammals that do this. Previously it was shown that cattle, deer, foxes and other types of mammals sometimes line up preferentially along Earth’s magnetic field lines.

[More amazing canine abilities] Study shows dogs can accurately diagnose breast and lung cancer

To some, dogs’ “sixth sense” might not come as a surprise, while others may view the present study as a complete waste of grant money. While it’s still unclear how dogs use this skill, it may be too early to dismiss the practical applications of the findings. If anything, however, this research proves yet again that dogs are extraordinary animals.

“To many dog owners who know about the good navigation abilities of their protégés, the findings might not come as a surprise, but rather as an explanation for the ‘supernatural’ abilities—although it is not clear to the researchers what the dogs might use their magnetic sense for,” Burda said.

Next, the researchers plan on studying how dogs use this ability and how magnetic storms affect their ability to orient themselves.  Findings were reported in the journal Frontiers in Zoology.

Sun magnetic field

The sun is expected to flip its magnetic poles in the coming weeks

sun polarity

(c) NASA

As the sun approaches the end of its 11-year-long cycle, scientists expect during one flash to change its polarity, ‘flipping’ upside down. You might think this would come at a cataclysmic expense, but there is absolutely no need to get alarmed. This happened every 11 years for as far as we can tell and each time the event wasn’t particularly felt here on Earth. Intensified solar storms that may damage satellite communications are expected, however.

The internal mechanism that flips the sun’s magnetic north and south every 11 years is surprisingly little understood. During the peak of each magnetic flip,  the sun experiences periods of increased solar activity, resulting in additional sunspots and events such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs).

According to data gathered by observatories all around the world, astronomers predicted back in August that the flip would take between three to four months. We’re already in mid December right now, and apparently the reverse polarity could occur at any time. In the next couple of weeks, we’ll most likely have a confirmation from NASA on the exact moment this magnetic shift occurred.

“A reversal of the sun’s magnetic field is, literally, a big event. The domain of the sun’s magnetic influence (also known as the ‘heliosphere’) extends billions of kilometers beyond Pluto. Changes to the field’s polarity ripple all the way out to the Voyager probes, on the doorstep of interstellar space,” NASA’s Tony Phillips explained.

Sun magnetic field

An artist’s concept of the heliospheric current sheet, which becomes more wavy when the sun’s magnetic field flips. (c) NASA

“Cosmic rays are also affected. These are high-energy particles accelerated to nearly light speed by supernova explosions and other violent events in the galaxy,” Phillips said. “Cosmic rays are a danger to astronauts and space probes, and some researchers say they might affect the cloudiness and climate of Earth. The current sheet acts as a barrier to cosmic rays, deflecting them as they attempt to penetrate the inner solar system. A wavy, crinkly sheet acts as a better shield against these energetic particles from deep space.”

Understanding a unique type of magnetism

Using low-frequency laser pulses, a team of researchers has carried out the first measurements on a mineral called herbertsmithite. This (pretty awesome looking) mineral features a unique kind of magnetism.

hebertsmithe

A sample of the mineral herbertsmithite.
PHOTO: ROB LAVINSKY/IROCKS.COM

Insite it, magnetic elements constantly fluctuate, leading to an exotic magnetic state, unlike conventional magnetism in which all magnetic forces allign in the same direction and also unlike antiferromagnets, where adjacent magnetic elements align in opposite directions, practically nullifying the material’s magnetic field.

A joint team from MIT, Boston College and Harvard University has successfully carried out these measurements, revealing a signature in the optical conductivity of the spin-liquid state that reflects the influence of magnetism on the motion of electrons; the quantum spin liquid is a state that can be achieved in a system of interacting quantum spins – the term “liquid” simply refers to a disordered state of matter. This supports a number of theoretical predictions which had been made. Nuh Gedik, the Biedenharn Career Development Associate Professor of Physics at MIT and lead author of the study was thrilled:

“We think this is good evidence,” Gedik says, “and it can help to settle what has been a pretty big debate in spin-liquid research.”

Another sample, via Wikipedia.

Another sample, via Wikipedia.

Daniel Pilon, a graduate student also at MIT was also happy to be part of the first experiment which tackles this unique type of magnetism:

“Theorists have provided a number of theories on how a spin-liquid state could be formed in herbertsmithite,” Pilon explains. “But to date there has been no experiment that directly distinguishes among them. We believe that our experiment has provided the first direct evidence for the realization of one of these theoretical models in herbertsmithite.”

 

Quantum spin liquids such as this one have been proposed all the way back in 1973, but up until a few years, this was only considered to be a theoretical state. It took almost 40 years to actually discover this mineral which exhibits such a state.

These exciting discoveries will remain in the lab for now, as no forseeable direct advantage ca be drawn from this state. Still, these are only the first steps in what is a thrilling new field.

Gedik says, “Although it is hard to predict any potential applications at this stage, basic research on this unusual phase of matter could help us to solve some very complicated problems in physics, particularly high-temperature superconductivity, which might eventually lead to important applications.” In addition, Pilon says, “This work might also be useful for the development of quantum computing.”

voyager-one-solar-system

Voyager may have already left the solar system according to magnetic bubble theory

voyager-1 probe

Our farthest scout in the Universe, the Voyager-1 probe, has traveled some 18.7 billion kilometers so far and it doesn’t show any sign of stopping. Soon enough, it will be the first man-made object to leave our solar system, when exactly however has been a matter of debate. For the past year or so, contradictory claims have made the matter uncertain, and officially (the word from the Voyager team) the craft has yet to breach the final outer limits of the solar system. A new paper, however,  suggests that the probe may have already left our solar system by offering a different interpretation on the magnetic bubble Voyager is currently traveling through.

Its rather difficult to draw a line where the solar system ends and where interstellar space begins. If we’re to judge from the heliosphere’s perspective – a bubble-like enclosure dominated by charged particles coming from the sun – we might very well say that Voyager’s way out since the number of particles of interstellar origin far outnumber those coming from the sun.

Beyond this region lies another region of contact, this time of a magnetic order. Referred to as the “magnetic highway”, in this region our sun’s magnetic field lines are connected to interstellar magnetic field lines. The problem is we don’t know for sure what happens at the junction between interstellar and solar magnetic fields. If you will, it’s like as if you were an European explorer in the XXVth century and you just set foot in the Americas – you have no idea what you’ll get, what you’ll see next until actually do.

The most distant man-made object

The main hypothesis is that magnetic fields are oriented in different directions inside and outside the bubble, and so far Voyager has yet to exhibit the sharp change in direction everyone’s expecting once it fully exits the solar system. Marc Swisdak and colleagues at University of Maryland propose an explanation that would account for the lack of change in direction, while at the same time hinting towards Voyager’s exit. They claim that the magnetic fields at the interstellar boundary may actually be parallel, and if this is the case scientists shouldn’t need to see a variation in direction.

voyager-one-solar-system

This magnetic parallelism would be caused by a phenomenon called magnetic reconnection, in which magnetic field lines break and then recombine in a sort of violently popping action. Magnetic reconnection is also thought to power solar flares. They envision a pair of magnetic ‘islands’ that appear spontaneously near three reconnection sites. Together these phenomena combine to create a set of parallel magnetic field lines that are just outside the Solar System proper.

With this in mind, the researchers performed a magnetohydrodynamics simulation done at NASA’s Ames research center in Moffett Field, California which offered these findings. These were presented recently at the American Geophysical Union meeting in Mexico, however, according to the authors people there had a hard time “swallowing this scenario.”

“The fine-scale magnetic connection model,” said  Ed Stone of the California Institute of Technology, “will become part of the discussion among scientists as they try to reconcile what may be happening on a fine scale with what happens on a larger scale.”

Stone has been the lead scientist for the Voyager mission ever since the probe first launched more than 35 years ago. He’s the guy who will blow the final whistle signaling the probe has left the solar system. When this will happen? Most likely within a few months (of course if it hasn’t left it already!), but like stated earlier, this is a whole new ground we’re treading about. Sure, we have a fairly good idea what we’re going to physically meet and measure beyond our solar system – it’s not like walking blindfolded – still, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if Voyager would need years to leave the solar system.

The magnetic reconnection paper was published in the Journal of Astrophysical Letters.

 

Magnetic structure in a colossal magneto-resistive manganite is switched from antiferromagnetic to ferromagnetic ordering during about 100 femtosecond (10^-15 s) laser pulse photo-excitation. With time so short and the laser pulses still interacting with magnetic moments, the magnetic switching is driven quantum mechanically– not thermally. This potentially opens the door to terahertz (10^12 hertz) and faster memory writing/reading speeds.(credit: DOE Ames Laboratory)

Terahertz-speed RAM and hard drives now possible through all-optical switching

Driven by technological demand to breach the gigahertz (10^9 hertz) switching speed limit of today’s magnetic memory and logic devices, a team of researchers have devised a novel technique of switching magnetism that is at least 1000 times faster than that currently employed opening up the terahertz age (10^12 hertz).

Hard drives, magnetic random access memory (RAM) and other computing devices typically employ magnetic switching to encode information and the speed at which this occurs governs how fast at their own term these devices can write, read, store and compute information.

Magnetic structure in a colossal magneto-resistive manganite is switched from antiferromagnetic to ferromagnetic ordering during about 100 femtosecond (10^-15 s) laser pulse photo-excitation. With time so short and the laser pulses still interacting with magnetic moments, the magnetic switching is driven quantum mechanically– not thermally. This potentially opens the door to terahertz (10^12 hertz) and faster memory writing/reading speeds.(credit: DOE Ames Laboratory)

Magnetic structure in a colossal magneto-resistive manganite is switched from antiferromagnetic to ferromagnetic ordering during about 100 femtosecond (10^-15 s) laser pulse photo-excitation. With time so short and the laser pulses still interacting with magnetic moments, the magnetic switching is driven quantum mechanically– not thermally. This potentially opens the door to terahertz (10^12 hertz) and faster memory writing/reading speeds.(credit: DOE Ames Laboratory)

Scientists the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory, Iowa State University, and the University of Crete in Greece have claim they have breached the terahertz barrier for magnetic memory technologies using laser pulses to create ultra-fast changes in the magnetic structure, within quadrillionths of a second (femtosecond), from anti-ferromagnetic to ferromagnetic ordering in colossal magnetoresistive materials (CMRs). Current commercial technology works at the gigahertz range.

Colossal magnetoresistive materials are a novel type of materials that promise to shape the way we judge performance once with their introduction in the next-generation memory and logic devices. CMRs are so appealing because of they’re amazingly responsive to the external magnetic fields used to write data into memory, but do not require heat to trigger magnetic switching.

Current magnetic storage and magneto-optical recording technology work to encode information by employing both optics and heat. To be more specific, typically a continuous laser light is used to zap  a ferromagnetic materials that heats up and vibrates. This vibration of the material’s atoms, in conjunction with a magnetic field, causes magnetic flips. The speed with which this  thermal magnetic switching occurs is thus limited since you need to wait for the atoms to become excited and vibrate, which makes it very difficult to cross the gigahertz  barrier. Devoid of such a limitation, by using all-optical switching, this limit can now be breached.

Ames Laboratory physicist Jigang Wang and his team used ultra-fast laser spectroscopy, shooting short pulses of laser light to excite a material and trigger a measurement all on the order of femtoseconds.

“In one CMR manganite material, the magnetic order is switched during the 100-femtosecond-long laser pulse. This means that switching occurs by manipulating spin and charge quantum mechanically,” said Wang. “In the experiments, the second laser pulse ‘saw’ a huge photo-induced magnetization with an excitation threshold behavior developing immediately after the first pump pulse.”

The fast switching speed and huge magnetization that Wang observed meet both requirements for applying CMR materials in ultra-fast, terahertz magnetic memory and logic devices.

“Our strategy is to use all-optical quantum methods to achieve magnetic switching and control magnetism. This lays the groundwork for seeking the ultimate switching speed and capabilities of CMR materials, a question that underlies the entire field of spin-electronics,” said Wang. “And our hope is that this means someday we will be able to create devices that can read and write information faster than ever before, yet with less power consumed.”

Findings were reported in the journal Nature.

Sockeye migrating up the Fraser River (conserv.org)

Salmon uses magnetic field to guide itself back home

Sockeye migrating up the Fraser River (conserv.org)

Sockeye migrating up the Fraser River (conserv.org)

For years scientists have been studying the salmon migration path, which is one of the most fascinating, yet dangerous. Once it’s born in its freshwater breeding location, the salmon heads for salt water in the ocean, before it returns to its exact  freshwater stream of birth in order to restart the process – a journey that lasts for years and carries the salmon thousands of miles. How they manage to navigate so precisely is still a subject for debate, but recently scientists at Oregon State University have proven that a very important signal is Earth’s magnetic field.

“For salmon to find their way back home, they remember the magnetic field that exists where they first enter the sea as juveniles, and once they reach maturity, they seek that same coastal location, with the same magnetic field,” Oregon State University researcher Nathan Putman told BBC News. “In other words, salmon remember the magnetic field where they enter the ocean and come back to that same spot once they reach maturity.”

The idea that salmon use Earth’s magnetic field to navigate to their original freshwater streams isn’t new, by far, it has actually been regarded as acceptable by the community for years. However, this is the first time the theory has been proven.

[ALSO READ] Humpback whales’ flawless natural navigation 

For their study, the researchers chose to look at the sockeye salmon, which is native to the northern Pacific Ocean and has the most grueling journey out of all salmon species. Data collected by fisheries for the past 56 years was used in order to find where the largest proportions of salmons could be found in which areas of the streams. Luckily a natural experiment had a deciding factor. Near the mouth of British Columbia’s Fraser River is 460-kilometer-long Vancouver Island, which lies right in between the sockeye salmon migration path back home.

VancouverIsland

Once the salmon reach Vancouver Island it is presented with two choices – either swim around it north or south. After studying the  federal fishery data, the researchers found the most salmon chose to swim by the route where the magnetic field strength was more similar to that of the river mouth when they’d left, two years before.

According to Putman, other marine animals in migration, like sea turtles or seals and whales, may be picking up the same magnetic cues as the salmon. “It seems unlikely that salmon are the only ones who’ve come up with this really good idea for finding your way home – it likely evolved in multiple lineages,” he said.

“In general, we know much less about how salmon complete the ocean part of their migration compared to fresh water,” said quantitative ecologist Chloe Bracis, a graduate student at the University of Washington who also studies geomagnetic salmon navigation. “The authors cleverly take advantage of spatial differences in a salmon migration route to provide the first solid evidence that salmon use geomagnetic cues to direct their oceanic migration.”

While the study clearly proves magnetic cues are used by salmon when navigating through fresh streams, it still doesn’t prove how it’s able to navigate through the endlessness of the open ocean. Other studies, including the present one at hand, also describe how the salmon uses water surface temperature, as well as chemical cues to guide themselves back to their breeding grounds. Still, these might just be a few tools in the fish’s navigation gear.

“They might use … a sun compass or other cues,” Bracis said. “Geomagnetic cues could guide them to the vicinity of the river, then they would need to switch to other local cues to navigate the rest of the way to the river mouth or through the estuary.”

Findings were reported in a paper published in the journal Current Biology.

via Wired

Doomsday part 3: The magnetic poles are shifting!

mayan-doomsday-special-zmescience

Something really bad is going to happen, and the Earth’s rotation will shift, rotating the other way, which will cause a magnetic pole reversal, which is going to rain all sorts of havoc on terrestrial life.

As the poles shift, there will be a massive continental drift, with landmasses plunging in towards each other, bringing earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and making all life on the planet all but extinct.

Oh, and even without the earthquakes and volcanoes, the magnetic shift itself will bring an end to the world as we know it.

Reality check!!!

As a geologist, it hurts my brain to write things like this, and to see that people actually believe something like this could happen… it’s painful to see how ignorant we are about the very planet we live on.

A shift in Earth’s rotation is impossible; unless, that is, a solar system sized galactic panda comes and starts manually spinning our planet the other way. It’s about as likely as that; and even if this did happen, it has absolutely nothing to do with magnetic pole reversal. People advertising this false doomsday use a bait and switch tactic, making senseless correlations.

Geomagnetic reversal, the phenomenon during which the North and South pole switch position is a well known and documented phenomena that has happened for hundreds of times in the Earth’s history, on average at about 400.000 years. The process itself takes a few millenia, and there’s no reason to believe it will happen again any time soon (next few millenia). Furthermore, even if it did happen, there’s absolutely no reason to believe that such a shift would harm life forms.

Read about other popular Mayan doomsday “prophecies” from our debunking series:

magnetic field

Physics premiere: synthetic magnetism used to control light – new generation of electronics possible

Photons are slippery fellas. Since they don’t have any electrons, they’re free to run through any matter, no matter how intense an electric field may be. Scientists at Stanford, however, have come by a monumental breakthrough after they devised a way to exert virtual force on photons using synthetic magnetism similar to the effect of magnets on electrons. The findings could lead to a whole new generation of highly efficient electronics.

“This is a fundamentally new way to manipulate light flow. It presents a richness of photon control not seen before,” said Shanhui Fan, a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford and senior author of the study.

A fundamental principle of electronics is the ability to maneuver electrons through a given path. When an electron is met with an magnetic field, it will travel along the lines where resistance is lowest, typically in a circular path around the field. In a similar manner, the Stanford researchers have successfully managed to send photons in a circular motion around the synthetic magnetic field.

Key to their attempt were photonic crystals –  materials that can confine and release photons

magnetic fieldWith this in mind, the scientists fashioned a a grid of tiny cavities etched in silicon, which acted as their photonic crystal. By applying a precise electrical current through the grid, the researchers were able to synthesize magnetism and exert virtual force upon photons. The photons’ path is subjected to a great degree of freedom, as researchers are able to modify its radius of curvature  by varying the electrical current applied to the photonic crystal and by manipulating the speed of the photons as they enter the system.

Apparently, in their breakthrough, the scientists managed to break the law as well. Don’t call the police just yet  – the laws of physics that is. A key postulate in physics, the time-reversal symmetry of light, was broken by the researchers after they introduced a charge on the photons that reacts to the effective magnetic field the way an electron would to a real magnetic field. What this means, for engineers at least, is that a photon travelling forward will have different properties than when it is traveling backward, opening a whole new spec of technical possibilities.

 “The breaking of time-reversal symmetry is crucial as it opens up novel ways to control light. We can, for instance, completely prevent light from traveling backward to eliminate reflection,” said Fan.

Think of optical fibers, which although fast for data transmission, still reflect plenty of light and cause noise and distortion of the signal.

“Despite their smooth appearance, glass fibers are, photonically speaking, quite rough. This causes a certain amount of backscatter, which degrades performance,” said Kejie Fang, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Physics at Stanford and the first author of the study.

In essence, once a photon enters the new device it cannot go back. This means a whole new generation of electronics based on light, instead of electricity, could be developed ranging from accelerators and microscopes to speedier on-chip communications.

Findings were reported in the journal Nature Photonics.

source

 

A droplet containing the soap is attracted to the magnet at left. (c) University of Bristol

World’s first magnetic soap might revolutionize oil spill clean-ups

A droplet containing the soap is attracted to the magnet at left. (c) University of Bristol

A droplet containing the soap is attracted to the magnet at left. (c) University of Bristol

University of Bristol scientists have developed a magnetic soap, which basically is a common soap only it’s filled with iron atoms that causes the targeted waste material to become magnetized. The detergent has a real potential of revolutionizing how mega clean-ups will be handled in the future. An oil spill could be cleaned a lot more easier and with a lower risk, for instance.

The magnetic soap was created after scientists disolved iron in a bunch of inert materials similar to those usually found in fabric softeners ( chloride and bromide ions). To demo the compound, in a test tube containing the soap, covered by a less dense organic solution (oil), a magnet was introduced which caused the soap and the attached material to conquer gravity and water adhesion forces, and rise towards the magnet.

“If you’d have said about 10 years ago to a chemist: ‘Let’s have some soap that responds to magnets‘, they’d have looked at you with a very blank face,” co-author Julian Eastoe of the University of Bristol, told BBC News. “We were interested to see, if you went back to the chemical drawing board with the tool-kit of modern synthetic chemistry, if you could…design one.”

Most probably this won’t likely become a commercial house-hold cleaning product in the future, however it could render massive results in providing an effective waste water or oil spill clean-up. A machine would simply have to real in the waste through a magnetized duct and into its tank, decontaminating the area.

Eastoe and his team took a sample of iron-rich surfactant at the Institut Laue-Langevin, in Grenoble, France, where it is was confirmed that the sample does indeed have magnetic properties after intense beam of sub-atomic particles known as neutrons were fired upon it.

“The particles of surfactant in solution are too small to see using light but are easily revealed by neutron scattering which we use to investigate the structure and behavior of all types of materials at the atomic and molecular scale,” said Dr. Isabelle Grillo, head of the Chemistry Laboratories at ILL.

“As most magnets are metals, from a purely scientific point of view these ionic liquid surfactants are highly unusual, making them a particularly interesting discovery. From a commercial point of view, though these exact liquids aren’t yet ready to appear in any household product, by proving that magnetic soaps can be developed, future work can reproduce the same phenomenon in more commercially viable liquids for a range of applications,” Eastoe told BBC News.

“The research at the University of Bristol in this field is about how we can take the ordinary and give it extraordinary properties by chemical design,” said Eastoe. “We have uncovered the principle by which you can generate this kind of material and now it’s back to the drawing board to make it better.”

The team of researchers published the research in the chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie.

Get a glimpse of a black hole’s fury

 

black hole

Recently, a team of researchers (with the help of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) and a host of international telescope partners) have managed to get the clearest observation yet of the “core” of a black hole.

A black hole is a region of space in which the gravitational field is so powerful that nothing, not even light, can escape its pull after having fallen past its event horizon.From what they could observe, astronomers drew the conclusion that there is a strong evidence of enormous jets of particles emitted by supermassive black holes, which are in fact corkscrewed in a way predicted by theory. The researchers reported their findings in the April 24 issue of Nature.

Also, they believe that the coiling is a result of twisted magnetic fields acting on the particle streams. The black hole was in the BL Lacertae galaxy, which 950 million light years from Earth.

The study was conducted by Alan Marscher of Boston University. More data and interesting stuff here.

A hundred years in the future Earth’s gravity could be weaker

gravity

Every day you hear about locations where the laws of physics appear not to apply or where anomalies take place every day; a big part of them are just hoaxes or are caused by misinterpretation of data but there are some which we have not been able to explain. According to an austrian physicist the whole planet is turning into a huge Bermuda Triangle. This theory he stated is supposed to be based upon heavy research and statistic.

Gunther Bildmeyer is his name and he says that “In this day Earth’s magnetic field is in fact 10% weaker than it was 150 years ago when the first measurements were conducted and it is getting weaker faster and faster”. “Should this be the case then a hundred years from now people are going to float here just as astronauts”. The conclusions which follow this are devastating. Effects vary from electromagnetic storms to shifts in Earth’s climate and an increase of solar radiation.

[digg-reddit-me]His theory is even more stunning as he says that this took place before. “This process happened a few times in the past and life was affected but it was not extinct. The problem is that now man is targeted directly because it is the first such incident our species witnesses. The previous event took place 780.000 years ago”. The physicist claims that it is happening because of the subtle shifts in Earth’s core.

“It somewhat resembles breathing. When the planet breathes in th masses of incandescent metal rise towards the surface and the field is more intens and when the planet breathes out the metal goes down and the gravity field is weaker. This cycle takes hundreds of thousands of years.”. Gunther Bildmeyer is not that well known. This could just be the sayings of a modern mad scientist or it could be the harsh truth. There are still things about our planet we know nothing about.

Astronomers Pinpoint Origin Of Nature’s Most Powerful Magnetic Bursts

magnetar
Those bursts are from magnetars. You may have some idea about what a white dwarf is, or a  black hole or even a pulsar, but what are magnetars?

Magnetars are neutron stars with an extremely powerful magnetic field; their decay powers the emission of copious amounts of high-energy electromagnetic radiation, particularly X-rays and gamma-rays. They pack the mass of a sun into a body the size of Manhattan Island – and that’s not the most awesome thing about them. Tiny magnetars have magnetic fields that are at least 100 trillion times as powerful as Earth’s magnetic field.

Their origin is a mistery but this is probably how they are formed: when, in a supernova, a star collapses to a neutron star (it has too much mass to become a white dwarf), its magnetic field increases dramatically in strength.The supernova might lose 10% of its mass in the explosion, or even more. In order for such large stars (10–30 solar masses) not to collapse straight into a black hole, they have to shed a larger proportion of their mass. About 1 in 10 supernova explosions result in a magnetar. In the solid crust of a magnetar, tensions can arise that lead to ‘starquakes’ – astrophysical phenomenons that occur when the crust of a neutron star undergoes a sudden adjustment, analogous to an earthquake on Earth.

Astronomers discovered a magnetar with the NASA’s X-Ray Timing Explorer in July 2003, when it brightened by about 100 times its usual faint luminosity. After that they studied it with the European Photon Imaging Camera, known as EPIC until about March 2006, when the object faded to its pre-outburst brightness. As the magnetar faded, EPIC recorded changes in the energies of the X-rays released.

Then they were able to calculate and describe the physical properties of a magnetar’s surface and magnetic field. The scientists say they are encouraged because the measurement is similar to an earlier estimate made based on how fast the source is “spinning down,” which is the change in the spin period over time. They plan to study more magnetars, using more data from X-ray observatories and they are probably going to find answers to the questions they have.