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date: 25 February 2018

Planetary Magnetic Fields

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. Please check back later for the full article.

The Earth’s magnetic field has been known for centuries. Since the mid-20th century space missions carrying vector magnetometers showed that most, but not all, solar system planets have a global magnetic field of internal origin. They also revealed a surprising diversity in terms of field strength and morphology. While Jupiter’s field, like that of Earth, is dominated by a dipole moderately tilted relative to the planet’s spin axis, with multipole components being subordinate but not negligible, the fields of Uranus and Neptune are multipole-dominated, whereas those of Saturn und Mercury are highly symmetric relative to the rotation axis. Planetary magnetism originates from a dynamo process, which requires a fluid and electrically conducting region in the interior with sufficiently rapid and complex flow. The magnetic fields are of interest for three reasons: (1) They provide ground truth for dynamo theory, which is a fundamental and not completely solved physical problem; (2) the magnetic field controls how the planet interacts with its space environment, for example, the solar wind; and (3) the existence (or nonexistence) and the properties of the field allow us to draw inferences on the constitution, dynamics, and thermal evolution of the planet’s interior. For example, the lack of global magnetic fields at Mars and Venus can be explained if their iron cores, although liquid, are stably stratified.

Numerical simulations of the geodynamo—in which convective flow in a rapidly rotating spherical shell representing the outer liquid iron core of the Earth leads to induction of electric currents and the associated magnetic field—have successfully reproduced many observed properties of the geomagnetic field. They have also provided guidelines on the factors controlling magnetic field strength and, tentatively, their morphology. For numerical reasons the simulations must employ viscosities far greater than those inside planets, and it is debatable whether they truly capture the correct physics of planetary dynamo processes. Nonetheless, such models have been adapted to test concepts for explaining magnetic field properties of other planets. For example, they show that a stable stratified conducting layer above the dynamo region is a plausible cause for the strongly axisymmetric magnetic fields of Mercury or Saturn.