Scientists Reveal Physics Behind ‘Space Weather’

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For the past several years, scientists have been trying to uncover the mystery behind space weather. Though it sounds like an alien fiction, space weather is something that is important to each of us. Every second, the sun thrusts millions of tons of charged, hot plasma gas into space. This “solar wind” batters the magnetic field surrounding the Earth. It causes powerful geomagnetic storms that can damage satellites, blackout power grids and disrupt cell phone service.

Scientists from across the U.S. conducting studies

Predicting these solar outbursts would help us take measures to cope with them. Many researchers have conducted experiments to reveal physics behind this space weather. They will present results of their studies at the 56th annual meeting of the American Physical Society’s Division of Plasma Physics in New Orleans.

Researchers at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory show how magnetic reconnection accelerates the solar wind to high energy, and how the subsequent solar wind interacts with the solar wind surrounding the Earth. Magnetic reconnection is an explosive phenomenon that occurs in solar flares. Meanwhile, Swarthmore College professor Michael Brown used a plasma “wind tunnel” to simulate signatures of magnetic turbulence in the solar wind.

Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles have recorded observations of how plasma magnetic waves interact with each other. Satellite measurements indicate that the observed interactions could explain the behavior of the hot plasma. These studies on physical processes were conducted to understand what happens in the space.

A major milestone in space weather research

Magnetic reconnection creates huge bursts of plasma from the sun. But until now, scientists had not been able to figure out how reconnection converts magnetic energy into the explosive particle energy. Researchers at the Plasma Physics Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy have offered new insights into space weather.

In a Magnetic Reconnection Experiment (MRX) study, they were able to identify how the transformation from magnetic energy to particle energy takes place. What’s more, they also experimentally measured the amount of magnetic energy that gets converted into explosive particle energy. Researchers said that the reconnection converts about 50% of magnetic energy. One-third of the conversion heats the electrons and the remaining two-thirds accelerate the ions in the plasma.

Masaaki Yamada, lead investigator for the MRX, said it was a major milestone in the space weather research.

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