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Twisted Physics

Cosmic Twister

22 May 2009, 04:24 UTC
Cosmic Twister
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I was a huge fan of the blockbuster movie Twister. How could you not cheer for the plucky under-funded storm chasers racing against the corporate sell-outs to achieve the first "peek" inside one of those impressive cyclones? The special effects gave us all a simulated peek into what such an experience would be like. Space, it seems, has its own tornadoes, and the twisters depicted so spectacularly in the movie pale mightily in comparison. According to new findings by a suite of five NASA space probes -- announced in April at the general assembly of the European Geosciences Union in Vienna -- those suckers have as much volume as the Earth itself, and give off electrical currents of more than 100,000 amperes.What exactly is a space tornado? It's basically rapidly rotating plasmas (i.e., hot ionized gas) that reach speeds in excess o a million miles per hour. (In contrast, earth-bound tornadoes rarely spin faster than a measly 200 miles per hour.) They both have that telltale funnel shape, however, although space tornadoes have the added property of generating intense electrical currents. It's those currents that hold great scientific interest, at least for the cluster of probes known as THEMIS (Time ...

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