A study conducted by the University of Wisconsin has used helium to help mimick solar winds in the lab. Affecting nearly everything in the solar system, the sun’s solar winds can disrupt the function of the Earth’s satellites.

For the study, the researchers used a big red ball to replicate the sun (a big ball of plasma). The ball was a three-meters-wide hollow sphere, with a strong magnet in the centre and various probes inside. 

In the solar system, as the sun spins the plasma spins too. The plasma movement in the core of the sun produces magnetic fields which fill the solar atmosphere. At the Alfvén surface (some distance from the sun’s surface) the magnetic field weakens, the plasma breaks away and solar wind is created.

“The solar wind is highly variable, but there are essentially two types: fast and slow,” said Ethan Peterson, a graduate student in the Department of Physics at UW-Madison.

“Satellite missions have documented pretty well where the fast wind comes from, so we are trying to study specifically how the slow solar wind is generated and how it evolves as it travels toward Earth.”

The study saw researchers pump helium into the red ball, ionising it to create a plasma. An electrical current was then applied which stirred the plasma and created a mimic of the spinning plasma and electromagnetic fields of the sun.


Source: The University of Wisconsin

The mini-sun meant researchers could record measurements at many points inside the ball, allowing them to study solar phenomena in three dimensions.

Researchers were able to recreate the Parker Spiral, a magnetic field that fills the entire solar system. Below the Alfvén surface, the magnetic field radiates straight out from the Sun. But at that surface, solar wind dynamics take over, dragging the magenta field into a spiral.

“Satellite measurements are pretty consistent with the Parker Spiral model, but only at one point at a time, so you’d never be able to make a simultaneous, large-scale map of it like we can in the lab,” said Peterson.

“Our experimental measurements confirm Parker’s theory of how it is created by these plasma flows.”

The researchers also identified the Sun’s plasma “burps,” small, periodic ejections of plasma that fuel the slow solar wind. With the plasma spinning, the researchers propped the magnetic field and the speed of the plasma.

Their data mapped a region where the plasma was moving fast enough, and the magnetic field was weak enough that the plasma could break off and eject radially.

“These ejections are observed by satellites, but no one knows that drives them. We ended up seeing very similar burps in our experiment and identified how they develop.”

The researchers stressed that their Earth-bond experiments complement, but don’t replace, satellite missions. For example, the Parker Solar Probe, launched in August (2018), is expected to dip below the Alfvén surface and will provide new measurements of solar wind.

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