Earth facing a decade long galactic dust storm

August 7, 2003

Brussels, 06 Aug 2003

The amount of galactic dust entering the solar system is three times higher than during the 1990s, according to a joint ESA/NASA experiment. Scientists believe that the Sun could be responsible for the increase.

During the last decade, the Sun's magnetic field has shielded the solar system from storms of electrically charged galactic dust. However, many believe that the recent reversal of the Sun's polarity has now focused a decade long dust storm on the inner solar system, including Earth.

The latest readings of the amounts of space dust entering the solar system come from the DUST instrument onboard the ESA/NASA mission Ulysses, launched in 1990. ESA scientist Markus Landgraf, who collected the data, was cautious about confirming the Sun's focusing effect: 'We get about two dust detections a week. We need to observe from now until 2006 in order to have enough data to see evidence of focusing,' he said.

The effects of increased levels of galactic dust impacting the Earth are unknown, but some researchers speculate that sustained periods of dust input into the atmosphere could be responsible for ice ages and even mass extinctions.

Again, Dr Landgraf is wary of predicting the long term effect of the dust storm on Earth, saying: 'Everything in interplanetary space eventually affects the planets, but exactly how is very speculative.'

Dr Landgraf and the team are hoping to compare the DUST data with the results of high altitude aircraft experiments that catch space dust as it falls to earth. Currently, funding for the Ulysses mission is due to run out in September 2004, but an extended mission is being considered.

For further information, please consult the following web address:
http://helio.estec.esa.nl/Ulysses/

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities

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