Marty Mlynczak: ‘Our atmosphere breathes sun’s energy’

When the solar wind strikes our atmosphere, the atmosphere expands and later contracts again. Mlynczak compares this in-and-out movement of Earth’s atmosphere to breathing and says it corresponds to solar cycles.

Astrophysicist Marty Mlynczak has discovered that our planet’s upper atmosphere moves up and down. He describes it as “breathing” the sun’s energy in and out.

Marty Mlynczak: From a satellite’s perspective, if you’re up there in orbit and you’re going along, the breathing looks like the energy from the sun has come in, the high speed stream has come in, it’s heated up the atmosphere, it’s expanded it.

The high speed stream coming in is what’s called solar wind. It’s made up of electrons and protons escaping through the sun’s upper atmosphere and flying towards Earth.

Marty Mlynczak: Just like your house when it gets hot, the air conditioner kicks on and brings the temperature down. When these high speed streams come in, they heat up the atmosphere.

And this is what activates the breathing. Earth’s upper atmosphere expands from the heat, and contracts when it’s been released. The fluctuation corresponds with the sun’s own solar wind cycles.

Marty Mlynczak: Every nine days, you all of a sudden have more stuff you’re running into. The atmosphere has gotten denser, and if you’re a satellite at a fixed altitude, all of a sudden you’re running into more matter. When you’ve got people in orbit, even a little tiny piece of space junk could be catastrophic if you hit the space station, put a hole in it.

Mlynczak says that’s one important reason for scientists to understand this atmospheric breathing.

Our thanks to:
Marty Mlynczak
NASA Langley Research Center
Hampton, VA

Photo: Johannes G.

Beth Lebwohl