Astrophysics in the lab

2006 APS-Physics April meeting in Dallas

Many of the complex phenomena we see in space are difficult to understand with existing theories. Part of the problem is that much of the matter in the universe is made of plasmas, which are collections of charged particles that can exhibit highly complex behavior, particularly when they interact with the magnetic fields of stars and galaxies.

Increasingly, scientists are turning to lab-based experiments to gain insight into the mechanisms that affect plasmas in space. Michael Brown ([email protected]) of Swarthmore College has built arrays of wire loops to study magnetic reconnection in plasmas. In the case of our sun, magnetic reconnection leads to solar flairs that release energy and eject blasts of particles that can interfere with terrestrial communication and even knock out power grids.

Paul Bellan ([email protected]) of Caltech, on the other hand, studies the astrophysical jets of plasma emitted by some galaxies by injecting gasses through nozzles into strong magnetic fields. Both Bellan and Brown are presenting their research in session L16.

John Goree ([email protected]) of the University of Illinois is interested in the dusty plasmas that fill interstellar space and make up the tails of comets and the rings of Saturn (S16). Because the dust in plasmas is much heavier than the ions and electrons of the plasmas themselves, the dusty plasmas behave very differently from the material that most stars are made of.

Goree studies dusty plasmas in the lab by mixing micron-sized particles into normal plasmas, and directly video taping the particles as they mimic the behavior of dusty space plasmas.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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