Scientists spotted a ‘space hurricane’ swirling above the magnetic north pole. It was raining charged solar particles.

Space hurricane
An illustration of a space hurricane above the North Pole. Qing-He Zhang/Shandong University

Typical hurricanes are easy to spot in satellite imagery: Swirling clouds surround a quiet eye. These storms usually form in the lowest layer of the atmosphere, closer to Earth’s surface, and unleash heavy rain and strong winds.

Space hurricanes are wholly different beasts.

A study published in the journal Nature Communications last month describes the first space hurricane ever spotted. In August 2014, satellites observed a swirling mass with a quiet center more than 201km above the North Pole.

Whereas regular hurricanes churn air, this space hurricane was an eddy of plasma, a type of superhot, charged gas found throughout the solar system. And instead of rain, this storm brought showers of electrons.

“Until now, it was uncertain that space plasma hurricanes even existed, so to prove this with such a striking observation is incredible,” Michael Lockwood, a space scientist at the University of Reading and a coauthor of the new study, said in a press release.

The space hurricane was more than 998km wide and high in the sky – it formed in the ionosphere, between 50 and 966km up. Lockwood and his coauthors used the satellite data to create a 3D model of the storm.

Space hurricanes could wreak havoc on satellites

The space hurricane lasted eight hours, swirling counterclockwise. The researchers said it had several spiral arms snaking out from its center, a bit like a spiral galaxy.

Spiral galaxy NASA
The NGC 1566 spiral galaxy, photographed by NASA’s Hubble telescope. ESA/Hubble & NASA

By plugging the satellite data into a computer model, Lockwood and his collaborators were able to reproduce the storm and figure out what caused it. They found that charged particles emitted by the sun’s upper atmosphere, the corona, were to blame.

This steady stream of solar particles and coronal plasma is known as solar wind. It moves at about 1 million miles an hour.

“These space hurricanes must be created by unusually large and rapid transfer of solar wind energy and charged particles into the Earth’s upper atmosphere,” Lockwood said.

As solar wind reaches Earth, it encounters the planet’s magnetic field. Earth has such a field because of the swirling liquid iron and nickel in its outer core, which gives rise to electric currents. The magnetosphere protects the planet from deadly radiation from the sun but also retains a tiny layer of plasma from that solar wind.

Magnetic field
Earth’s magnetic field protects the planet from solar radiation. NASA Goddard / Bailee DesRocher

Typically, solar winds glance off this protective sheath. But sometimes the incoming charged particles and plasma interact with either the trapped plasma or the electrical currents generating the field. Such interactions create disturbances in the magnetosphere.

The 2014 space hurricane was one such disturbance.

The study’s authors suggested that an interaction between the Earth’s magnetic field and bits of the sun’s magnetic field – transported on the solar wind – helped to form the storm.

Usually, magnetic fields don’t mix. But if they do come close, portions of the fields can get realigned and even merge, forming a new pattern of magnetic energy. That’s what likely happened on the day of the space storm: An influx of solar wind energy formed a new pattern above Earth’s magnetic north pole.

The storm acted as a channel from space into Earth’s atmosphere, funneling some electrons down past the planet’s armor.

This particle rain could have wreaked havoc on our high-frequency radio communications, radar-detection systems, or satellite technology, the study’s authors said. That’s because charged solar particles that seep through Earth’s magnetic field can cause malfunctions in computers and circuitry on satellites and the International Space Station. Luckily, in this case, no issues were observed.

Other planets could have space hurricanes too

Jupiter magnetic field
An illustration of Jupiter’s magnetic field, part of the American Natural History Museum’s ‘Worlds Beyond Earth’ planetarium show. Aylin Woodward/Business Insider

Earth isn’t the only planet to experience hurricanes – similar weather patterns occur on Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter. But this was the first time scientists spotted a hurricane in the upper atmosphere of any planet in the solar system.

Lockwood said he thinks any planet or moon with a magnetosphere could experience a space hurricane. All planets in our solar system except Venus and Mars have those.

“Plasma and magnetic fields in the atmosphere of planets exist throughout the universe, so the findings suggest space hurricanes should be a widespread phenomena,” he said.