Astrophysics and Space Science

, Volume 58, Issue 1, pp 207-226

First online:

Observation of Birkeland currents with the TRIAD satellite

  • T. A. PotemraAffiliated withApplied Physics Laboratory, The Johns Hopkins University

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The intimate connection between geomagnetic storms and the aurora was appreciated by many early scientists including Edmund Halley and Anders Celsius, but the first serious study of this phenomena was made by Kristian Birkeland who, during his polar expeditions of 1902–1903, determined that large-scale ionospheric current were associated with the aurora. Birkeland was also the first to suggest that these currents originated far from the Earth and that they flowed into and away from the polar atmosphere along the geomagnetic field lines. The existence of such field-aligned orBirkeland currents was widely disputed because it was not possible to unambiguously identify current systems that are field-aligned (Alfvén, 1939, 1940) and those which are completely contained in the ionosphere (Vestine and Chapman, 1938) only from a study of surface magnetic field measurements. During the last decade, the presence of Birkeland currents has been absolutely confirmed with particle and magnetic field observations acquired from a variety of rocket and satellite instruments. The vector magnetometer on the low-altitude (∼800 km) polar orbiting TRIAD satellite has been used to determine for the first time the flow direction, spatial distribution, and intensities of Birkeland currents in the north and south auroral regions. These observations support the mechanism originally proposed by Alfvén (1939, 1940)-later expanded by Shieldet al. (1969)-to drive Birkeland currents in the auroral regions, and they demonstrate the important role that these intense currents (ranging between 106 and 107 amperes) play in the coupling of energy between the magnetosphere and the lower ionosphere and atmosphere.