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.
Photo: Johannes G.
Beth Lebwohl researches, writes and helps produce science content in audio and video formats for EarthSky. She is one of the authors on EarthSky.org, a script-writer for our podcasts, and helps host our English science podcasts in 90-second, 8-minute and 22-minute formats. Beth came to EarthSky in 2006 from the American Museum of Natural History's Department of Astrophysics, where she was surrounded by some of the greatest telescope-building, equation-wielding, code-writing physicists of our time. And they made her think . . . this science thing . . . it's pretty cool.