Physicists have made a breakthrough in studying the causes of extreme space weather by creating a mini sun with its own simulated gravity. The mini sun, which consists of a superheated plasma inside a 1-inch glass sphere, produces sound waves that constrain the plasma much like gravity does in the actual sun.
This experiment could help scientists predict the severe space weather events that can cause power outages, harm the internet, and even bring down satellites to the Earth. Lead study author John Koulakis, a physicist at the University of California, Los Angeles, says “With the use of microwave-generated sound in a spherical flask of hot plasma, we achieved a gravity field that is 1,000 times stronger than Earth’s gravity.”
Solar weather is caused by magnetic fields knotting into kinks and suddenly snapping to launch bursts of radiation called solar flares or coronal mass ejections (CMEs). The details of when and how these storms form are not well understood, but previous attempts to replicate the conditions in the heart of the sun have faced challenges due to the Earth’s gravity altering the results.
To solve this problem, the physicists trapped sulfur gas in a glass sphere and transformed it into plasma with temperatures reaching 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit by blasting it with microwaves. The sound waves produced by the swirling, ionized gas act as a substitute for gravity, producing patterns similar to the plasma flows seen on the sun’s surface. By observing these flows, scientists hope to gain insight into the workings of our star.
The researchers plan to scale up the experiment to closely mirror the conditions on the sun and observe the gas swirling for longer periods. With the sun’s activity expected to peak in 2025, the study of extreme space weather has never been more crucial. In the past, massive solar storms have caused trillions of dollars in damage and endangered lives, with the largest storm in recent history being the 1859 Carrington Event.
“This mini sun experiment holds the key to unlocking the secrets of extreme space weather and protecting our technology-dependent society,” says senior author Seth Putterman, a physics professor at UCLA.