Earth may be trapped inside a giant magnetic tunnel

Astronomers aren't sure why our planet and others in the solar system may be stuck inside a huge magnetic tunnel.
Astronomers have proposed that a tube of huge magnetized tendrils may surround the solar system. It is 1,000 light-years in length and invisible to the naked eye. Jennifer West, an astronomer from the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, at the University of Toronto made the suggestion after an investigation of the North Polar Spur and Fan Region, two of the most radio-emitting structures in our galaxy, revealed that they might be connected, even though they are on opposite sides of the sky.

West stated in a statement that if one could look up into the sky, they would see a tunnel-like structure in almost every direction.

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Curving tendrils are composed of both charged particles as well as a magnetic field and look like long, thin ropes that extend outward from the North Polar Spur or the Fan Region. Researchers suggested that the cosmic ropes could link the two regions. They could also form something similar to "a curving tunnel", where tendrils look like "the lines formed from the tunnel lights and road marker."

Left image shows a spiraling tunnel. The geometry created by tunnel's lights, road markings and other traffic signals is similar to that of the cosmic tunnel. Right shows the night sky as radio polarized waves with the filaments annotated by arrows. (Image credit: Left: Pixabay/ Jennifer West. Right: Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory/Villa Elisa telescope/ESA/Planck Collaboration/Stellarium/Jennifer West)

This would allow our solar system to be placed, along with a small portion of the Milky Way in the gigantic magnetic tunnel.

The North Polar Spur is an enormous crest of gas that emits radio waves and X-rays. It appears above our galaxy as a huge yellow cloud. Although the Fan Region is not well-known, it produces many polarized radio waves. These unusual regions of space were first discovered in 1960s. Scientific understanding of them is still patchy. Previous studies have described each structure individually.

West and her colleagues were able to map the length and location of the enormous ropes by combining radio wave observations with a computer model. The model predicted that the ropes would be approximately 1,000 light-years in length and that they would most likely be about 350 light years from the sun.

A map showing the Milky Way illustrated. Zoomed-in, the inset image shows the bars between the filaments and a tiny red dot (our sun) trapped between them. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt/SSC/Caltech/Jennifer West)

West claims that her inspiration for the model came from her time as a student. She saw the tendrils when she first looked at a map of radio sky. She was later told about a 1965 paper that speculated on strange radio signals.

According to West, "Based on crude data at this time, the authors (Mathewson & Milne), speculated that these polarized radiation signals could arise out of our view of The Local Arm of the Galaxy, from within it." "That paper inspired my to create this model and tie it to the much better data our telescopes provide us today."

These cosmic filaments are not only visible in our region of the universe. They are found throughout the galaxy, and emit many types of light. In their study, the researchers noted that filamentary structures were seen emitting optical lights near the remnants of massive stellar explosions or supernovas. They also saw them in molecular clouds and walls of "galactic fireplaces", huge cavities formed by multiple supernova blasts. Through these, hot gas from the galactic disc flows to the galactic center. Some studies even suggest that spiraling filaments made of molecular gases could be the "bones," which form the "skeleton", of the Milky Way.

This is a not-too-scale illustration showing the position of the sun within the huge loops of magnet filament. (Image credit: West et al. )

Next, the scientists will confirm their findings with detailed observations of the regions that they have simulated. Then, they will refine their model using those observations. West hopes to improve the understanding of other magnetic filaments around our galaxy by developing the model. One possibility that invisible magnetic ropes could only be part of a larger galactic structure is intriguing.

"Magnetic fields can't exist apart." All of them must be connected to one another," West stated. "So the next step is to understand how the local magnetic field connects to both the larger-scale galactic magnet field and the smaller-scale magnetic field of our sun or Earth.

West said, "It's amazing to imagine these structures everywhere, whenever you look up at the night sky."

Researchers published their findings on September 29th on arXiv's preprint server. This means that it is still being peer reviewed.

Original publication on Live Science