University of Wisconsin scientists recreate a ‘mini-sun’ that burps plasma

Scientists create mini-sun in lab.

Studying the sun is a tricky science. This is due to the fact that it’s a violent, churning ball of ultrahot plasma that frequently blasts out across the solar system. While a number of satellites have launched to study the sun, getting a close-up look is hazardous to the hardware. Which is why scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison created their own mini-sun, as reports.

To accomplish this sunny feat, the researchers built a 10-foot wide aluminum vacuum chamber they refer to as “the big red ball.” The team created the solar model by pumping helium into the chamber and ionizing it to turn it to plasma. The researchers then used a magnet at the center of the plasma ball to simulate the sun’s magnetic field. The magnetic field in conjunction with an electric current applied by the team caused the mini-sun to rotate just like the real thing.

A Sunny Study

The model aided in studying the solar wind and related phenomena like the mysterious plasma ejections as well as something called the Parker spiral. Astrophysicist Eugene Parker theorized about the solar wind theory 60 years ago. The Parker Spiral, the astrophysicist theorized, is the looping shape the sun’s magnetic field takes as it interacts with the solar wind.

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“[Our] effort was trying to…confirm or refute the theoretical derivation for the solar wind and heliospheric magnetic field that Parker figured out in 1958,” Ethan Peterson, graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s physics department and lead author of the study says. By observing the mini-sun, the team discovered that the Parker spiral did in fact take form.

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Peterson and his colleagues also observed globs of plasma flying off the solar model. “We were initially surprised to observe these plasmoids, or plasma blobs, ejected at such a regular frequency,” Peterson says. The team dubbed these ejected blobs “plasma burps.”

The plasma burps reminded researchers of the plasma ejections sun-studying satellites have observed. The team made progress in understanding why these plasma ejections take place. The team noticed that some areas of the mini-sun had weaker magnetic fields than others. Furthermore, they observed that the plasma in these areas moved faster and was more likely to break away. Ethan and his colleagues published their findings in the journal Nature Physics.

Protecting the Modern World

“The Big Red Ball” first came to fruition in 2012 and the researchers at the university have continued to upgrade it. Next up for the team? They hope to study where the solar wind comes from and how it flies out into the solar system. They also hope to better understand what’s called “collisionless plasmas.”

A better understanding of how the solar wind and plasma ejections work is important in protecting the fleet of satellites that orbit the Earth. These satellites are crucial in the workings of the world’s technological systems from GPS to banking and a number of other communication networks. But a particularly big solar flare-up could knock out our satellite infrastructure. So if we can predict these solar temper tantrums we can better protect the modern world.