Research Article

Tail Reconnection Triggering Substorm Onset

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Science  15 Aug 2008:
Vol. 321, Issue 5891, pp. 931-935
DOI: 10.1126/science.1160495

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Magnetospheric substorms explosively release solar wind energy previously stored in Earth's magnetotail, encompassing the entire magnetosphere and producing spectacular auroral displays. It has been unclear whether a substorm is triggered by a disruption of the electrical current flowing across the near-Earth magnetotail, at ∼10 RE (RE: Earth radius, or 6374 kilometers), or by the process of magnetic reconnection typically seen farther out in the magnetotail, at ∼20 to 30 RE. We report on simultaneous measurements in the magnetotail at multiple distances, at the time of substorm onset. Reconnection was observed at 20 RE, at least 1.5 minutes before auroral intensification, at least 2 minutes before substorm expansion, and about 3 minutes before near-Earth current disruption. These results demonstrate that substorms are likely initiated by tail reconnection.

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