Sunday, Sunday, sensawunday…

MercuryYou know, the solar system is just brim full of awesomeness. Check out the latest skinny on Mercury, once thought to be an unremarkable rock on the grand scheme of things:

Magnetic tornadoes form when the magnetic field in the solar wind links up to the field generated by a planet, a process called magnetic reconnection. Bundles of magnetic field lines connect the surface of the planet directly to the surface of the sun, and as the solar wind pushes them away from the sun, they twist and whirl like cyclones. On Earth, these cyclones (technically called “flux transfer events”) dance on the ionosphere, creating the Northern Lights and messing up GPS systems.

On Mercury, though, the twisters were 10 times as strong as any magnetic cyclones observed on Earth. With so little atmosphere to interfere, Mercury’s magnetic tornadoes are great spinning chutes that ionized gas can slide down.

“They act as magnetic channels or open windows that allow solar wind plasma from the sun, very fast and very hot, to come right down those field lines and impacts the surface,” said Jim Slavin of NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center. When the gas hits the surface, it knocks off neutrally-charged atoms and sends them on a loop high into the sky.

Now there’s a hard sf novum just waiting for someone to write it; maybe a system-wide power supply based around funneling the solar wind onto the innermost planet and then harnessing it somehow? Paul McAuley, I’m looking at you. [image courtesy thebadastronomer]

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