'Plasma Bubbles' Can Lead to Solar Flares and Auroras

Sunday, 04 March 2018 - 2:27PM
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Sunday, 04 March 2018 - 2:27PM
'Plasma Bubbles' Can Lead to Solar Flares and Auroras
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The process of "fast magnetic reconnection" may not seem to interesting, but it plays a role in a lot of extremely bright and sometimes dangerous events

Because fast magnetic reconnection is process behind such things as solar flares, auroras, and the occasional geomagnetic storm which could potentially wipe out satellites and power grids if strong enough. So it's important that we have a good understanding of this process, and the U.S. Department of Energy's Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) have just made a breakthrough.



Running computer simulations and analyzing the resulting data, the PPPL found that bubbles made of plasma can be a quick way to jumpstart the reconnection process. Fast magnetic reconnection is caused when a magnetic field - which commonly contains lines of hot plasma - sees those plasma lines break apart and then violently reconnect, which can vast explosions of energy.

Looking at a phenomenon within that plasma called "plasmoid instability" shows that it can form plasma bubbles, which are more dangerous than they sound. When a plasma bubble gains a certain amount of electrical conductivity, and when enough random fluctuations from other parts of the plasma occur, the bubble can end up starting the reconnection process and causing that energy explosion.



We're gradually learning more about these sorts of phenomena, having recently made some other breakthroughs on the causes of auroras (and also recovering a lost NASA satellite which studied them). But that's small scale.  When plasma bubbles cause reconnection on a more galactic scale - let's say in a supernova - it can cause enormous bursts of cosmic gamma rays.

According to PPPL physicist Yi-Min Huang, who recently authored a study on the matter, such an event would have some slightly significant ramifications on that galactic scale. Which means it would have unfathomably extreme ramifications for Earth. He said the following in a press release:

Opening quote
"A gamma-ray burst in our Milky Way galaxy, if pointing towards Earth, could potentially cause a mass extinction event."
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So for the time being, let's hope the plasma bubbles stay small and restricted to the Aurora Borealis.
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