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  • Some Auroral Glow is Polarized
Apr 2008
WASHINGTON, April 29, 2008 -- An international team of scientists has detected that some of the glow of Earth's aurora is polarized, an unexpected state for such emissions.

Measurements of this newfound polarization in the northern lights may provide scientists with fresh insights into the composition of Earth's upper atmosphere, the configuration of its magnetic field, and the energies of particles from the sun, the researchers said.

If observed on other planets, the phenomenon might also give clues to the shape of the sun's magnetic field as it curls around other bodies in the solar system.
Two colors -- green and red -- of the aurora borealis are seen. Laboratory of Planetology scientists discovered weak polarization in the red due to electrons hitting oxygen atoms. Also shown is a 42-meter antenna (far left). Star gazers can also make out the planet Mars and the Pleiades star cluster in the sky. (Photo: G.Gronoff/LPG)
When a beam of light is polarized, its electromagnetic waves share a common orientation, say, aligned vertically, or at some other angle. Until now, scientists thought that light from energized atoms and molecules in planetary upper atmospheres could not be polarized, because despite the low number of particles at the altitudes concerned (about 60 miles), there are still numerous collisions between molecules and gas atoms, and those collisions depolarize the emitted light.

Fifty years ago, an Australian researcher, Robert Duncan, claimed to observe what looked like polarization of auroral light, but other scientists were unconvinced by that single observation.

To revisit the question, Jean Lilensten of the Laboratory of Planetology of Grenoble, France, and his colleagues studied auroral light with a custom-made telescope during the winters of 2006-2007 and 2007-2008. They made their observations from Svalbard Island, Norway, which is in the polar region at a latitude of 79° north.

At the north and south magnetic poles, many charged particles in the solar wind -- a flow of electrically charged matter from the sun -- are captured by the planet's field and forced to plunge into the atmosphere. The particles strike atmospheric gases, causing light emissions.

Lilensten and his colleagues observed weak polarization of a red glow that radiates at an altitude of 140 miles, the result of electrons hitting oxygen atoms. The scientists had suspected that such light might be polarized because Earth's magnetic field at high latitudes funnels the electrons, aligning the angles at which they penetrate the atmosphere.

The finding of auroral polarization "opens a new field in planetology," said Lilensten, who is the lead author of the study. He and his colleagues reported their results April 19 in Geophysical Research Letters, a publication of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).
A digitally enhanced image of an aurora borealis taken in January 2005 above Bear Lake, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. (Photo: Joshua Strang, US Air Force)
Fluctuations in the polarization measurements can reveal the energy of the particles coming from the sun when they enter Earth's atmosphere, Lilensten said. The intensity of the polarization gives clues to the composition of the upper atmosphere, particularly with regard to atomic oxygen.

Because polarization is strongest when the telescope points perpendicularly to the magnetic field lines, the measurements also provide a way to determine magnetic field configurations, Lilensten said. That could prove especially useful as astronomers train their telescopes on other planetary atmospheres. If polarized emissions are observed there as well, the measurements may enable scientists to understand how the sun's magnetic field is distorted by obstacles such as the planets Venus and Mars, which lack intrinsic magnetic fields.

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The strongest light emitted by the Earth's upper atmosphere. It most often can be viewed in the Arctic as the aurora borealis, and in the Antarctic as the aurora australis.
Electromagnetic radiation detectable by the eye, ranging in wavelength from about 400 to 750 nm. In photonic applications light can be considered to cover the nonvisible portion of the spectrum which includes the ultraviolet and the infrared.
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
Depicting one of the two ends of an axis of rotation.
An afocal optical device made up of lenses or mirrors, usually with a magnification greater than unity, that renders distant objects more distinct, by enlarging their images on the retina.
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