Solar flares are huge plumes of superheated plasma ejected from the sun. These massive plumes are so large they could engulf our planet many times over. But for the first time, researchers have created mini solar flares in a lab that are small enough to fit in your lunchbox.
solar flares were born from large loops of plasma, or ionized gas, on the surface of the sun. These loops, called corona loops, form along invisible magnetic field lines that are twisted by the intense gravity of the sun. Sometimes, however, these lines spring back to their original shape like a rubber band, pushing the plasma away from the sun.
Solar flares can also launch coronal mass ejections (CME) – fast-moving clouds of magnetized plasma, high-energy particles and electromagnetic radiation – which can ignite disruptive geomagnetic storms if they hit Earth. But despite observing hundreds of solar flares, researchers still don’t know how they go from corona loops to full-fledged projectiles.
In a new study, published April 6 in the journal natural astronomy (opens in a new tab)a team of researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena have created their own artificial corona loops in the laboratory to try to solve this mystery.
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The team discharged electricity from a pair of electrodes inside a magnetized gas-filled chamber. The electricity ionized the gas, creating a chain of plasma between the two electrodes, which was then briefly held in place in a loop by the chamber’s magnetic field before collapsing and firing a mini torch outward .
The loops were about 20 centimeters long, about the same size as a banana, and lasted about 10 microseconds, during which time the experiment used the same amount of energy as the city of Pasadena in the same amount of time. time. Using specialized cameras that capture 10 million frames per second, the researchers observed how the loops grew and then broke up.
The study confirmed that the artificial loops resembled ropes, just as other researchers had previously proposed.
“If you dissect a piece of rope, you see it’s made up of braids of individual strands. Separate those individual strands and you’ll see it’s braids of even smaller strands, and so on,” said said the lead author of the study. Yang Zhang (opens in a new tab)a Caltech graduate student, said in a statement (opens in a new tab). “Plasma loops seem to work the same way.”
This rope-like structure may play a key role in causing solar flares. In the lab, the artificial loops remained stable until they were overloaded with energy, at which point a corkscrew-like bend appeared in the loops, and they ruptured. Video footage reveals that the bend initially caused a plasma strand to break, which then put additional pressure on the surrounding strands, causing them to break as well.
Similar folds also appear in images of real corona loops before they break up into solar flares, the researchers wrote.
As the loops break, the researchers also detected a voltage spike. They think a similar spike in actual solar flares could provide the energy needed to launch the high-energy particles and radiation into a CME.
This is not the first time that scientists have tried to reproduce the sun in the laboratory. In January, researchers at UCLA unveiled an artificial “mini sun” which can generate sound waves to mimic the effects of gravity. The plasma-filled glass sphere, which measures just 1 inch (3 cm) in diameter, could also be used to study how the sun’s magnetic fields influence solar flares.
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