Nav: Home

Growing magnetic fields in deep space: Just wiggle the plasma

November 05, 2018

Contrary to what many people believe, outer space is not empty. In addition to an electrically charged soup of ions and electrons known as plasma, space is permeated by magnetic fields with a wide range of strengths. Astrophysicists have long wondered how those fields are produced, sustained, and magnified. Now, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) have shown that plasma turbulence might be responsible, providing a possible answer to what has been called one of the most important unsolved problems in plasma astrophysics.

The researchers used powerful computers at the Princeton Institute for Computational Science and Engineering (PICSciE) and the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) at the DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to simulate how the turbulence could intensify magnetic fields through what is known as the dynamo effect, in which the magnetic fields become stronger as the magnetic field lines twist and turn. "This work constitutes an important step toward answering for the first time the question of whether turbulence can amplify magnetic fields to dynamical strengths in a hot, dilute plasma, such as that residing within clusters of galaxies," said Matthew Kunz, an astrophysics professor at Princeton University and an author of the paper, which was published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Past research has focused on dynamos as they might occur in so-called collisional plasmas, in which particles collectively behave as a fluid. But intergalactic plasmas are collisionless, so past experiments are not necessarily relevant. This new research is meant to address that gap. "We wanted to see how the dynamo would behave in the collisionless regime," said Denis St-Onge, graduate student in the Princeton Program in Plasma Physics at PPPL and lead author of the paper.

St-Onge and Kunz focused on the ways in which the velocities and magnetic fields of individual particles within collisionless plasma are directly linked. This linkage -- if one quantity increases or decreases, the other must, too -- would seem to rule out the existence of a dynamo. "If this were the whole story, it would be disastrous for the dynamo," said St-Onge. "To match what we observe in space, the dynamo would have to increase the strength of the seed magnetic field by at least a factor of one trillion, but the energy of the particles would also have to increase, and there's just not enough available energy in the dynamo for that to happen."

To produce the strength of magnetic fields observed in space, the tie that binds particle energy to magnetism must be severed. This is just what St-Onge and Kunz observed in the computer simulations: that types of plasma turbulence known as mirror and firehose instabilities caused the plasma particles to scatter, and scattering broke the link between particle energy and magnetism and allowed the amplitudes of the magnetic fields to grow closer to what is observed in nature.

Future research, St-Onge notes, will focus on why this turbulent scattering occurs. "In addition, we would like to investigate the specifics of particle scattering," St-Onge said. "How exactly do the instabilities cause the particles to scatter, how often does the scattering occur, and can the scattering lead to sudden, dramatic growth of a magnetic field? The last idea is a notion proposed by PPPL Director Steven Cowley years ago. We would like to investigate whether this is true."
-end-
This research was supported by the DOE Office of Science. NERSC is a DOE Office of Science user facility.

PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas -- ultra-hot, charged gases -- and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

DOE/Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

Related Magnetic Field Articles:

Earth's last magnetic field reversal took far longer than once thought
Every several hundred thousand years or so, Earth's magnetic field dramatically shifts and reverses its polarity.
A new rare metals alloy can change shape in the magnetic field
Scientists developed multifunctional metal alloys that emit and absorb heat at the same time and change their size and volume under the influence of a magnetic field.
Physicists studied the influence of magnetic field on thin film structures
A team of scientists from Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University together with their colleagues from Russia, Japan, and Australia studied the influence of inhomogeneity of magnetic field applied during the fabrication process of thin-film structures made from nickel-iron and iridium-manganese alloys, on their properties.
'Magnetic topological insulator' makes its own magnetic field
A team of U.S. and Korean physicists has found the first evidence of a two-dimensional material that can become a magnetic topological insulator even when it is not placed in a magnetic field.
Scientists develop a new way to remotely measure Earth's magnetic field
By zapping a layer of meteor residue in the atmosphere with ground-based lasers, scientists in the US, Canada and Europe get a new view of Earth's magnetic field.
More Magnetic Field News and Magnetic Field Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Rethinking Anger
Anger is universal and complex: it can be quiet, festering, justified, vengeful, and destructive. This hour, TED speakers explore the many sides of anger, why we need it, and who's allowed to feel it. Guests include psychologists Ryan Martin and Russell Kolts, writer Soraya Chemaly, former talk radio host Lisa Fritsch, and business professor Dan Moshavi.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#537 Science Journalism, Hold the Hype
Everyone's seen a piece of science getting over-exaggerated in the media. Most people would be quick to blame journalists and big media for getting in wrong. In many cases, you'd be right. But there's other sources of hype in science journalism. and one of them can be found in the humble, and little-known press release. We're talking with Chris Chambers about doing science about science journalism, and where the hype creeps in. Related links: The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study Claims of causality in health news: a randomised trial This...