Credits: NASA/ESA and The Hubble Heritage Team STScI/AURA
The shock wave that sits above the Earth’s surface is a natural phenomenon. It is located on the side facing the Sun, at approximately one quarter of the distance to the Moon, and is caused by the flow of electrically charged particles from the Sun.
This flow of electrically charged particles known as solar wind is emitted in a gusty manner by the Sun. When it collides with the Earth’s magnetic field, it is abruptly slowed down and this causes a barrier of electrified gas, called the bow shock, to build up. It behaves in the same way as water being pushed out of the way by the front of a ship.
On 24 January 2001, the four Cluster spacecraft were flying at an approximate altitude of 105 000 kilometres, in tetrahedron formation. Each spacecraft was separated from the others by a distance of about 600 kilometres. With such a distance between them, as they approached the bow shock, scientists expected that every spacecraft would record a similar signature of the passage through this region.
Instead, the readings they got were highly contradictory. They showed large fluctuations in the magnetic and electric field surrounding each spacecraft. They also revealed marked variations in the number of solar wind protons that were reflected by the shock and streaming back to Sun.
The detection has implications for the way astronomers investigate larger bow shocks around distant celestial objects. Bow shocks are related to some of the most energetic events in the Universe. Exploding stars and strong stellar winds from young stars cause them. Reforming bow shocks can also accelerate particles to extremely high energies and throw them across space.
Although the conditions that cause the reformation of a shock wave are rare around the Earth, they are common around these other celestial objects.
Cluster makes a shocking discovery ESA Press Release
New Horizons & Other Starships - Where are they now? from Astroprof