Using large radio telescopes and ultraviolet cameras aboard NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, scientists made a discovery on how matter behaves in the extreme conditions of the sun's atmosphere.
Most Common Form Of Matter In The Universe
In a study published in the Nature Communications, researchers took a closer look on the exotic but poorly understood "fourth state of matter" called plasma. Their findings could hold the key to developing safe, clean and efficient nuclear energy generators.
Most matter on Earth comes in the form of solid, liquid, or gas, but the most common form of matter in the universe is plasma, a highly unstable and electrically charged fluid, which also makes up the sun.
Despite being the most prevalent form of matter in the universe, much remains unknown about plasma because it is scarce on Earth. Special laboratories have to recreate the extreme conditions of space for the purpose of studying the exotic matter.
The sun itself remains the best natural laboratory that can shed light on how plasma behaves in conditions that are often too extreme to be recreated in Earth-based laboratories.
Using observations of a large radio telescope located in Nançay in central France and combining the data with radio observations gathered by the ultraviolet cameras on the SDO spacecraft, researchers were able to show that plasma on the sun can often generate radio light that pulses like a lighthouse.
Researchers have known about this phenomenon for decades, but this is the first time they were able to image the radio pulses and see exactly how plasmas become unstable in the sun's atmosphere.
Controlling Unstable Plasmas On Earth
Studying how plasmas behave on the sun allows for a comparison of how the exotic matter behaves on Earth, where there is now an effort to build magnetic confinement fusion reactors.
These are nuclear energy generators that are cleaner, safer, and more efficient compared with currently used fission reactors. The problem with nuclear fusion plasmas, however, is that they tend to be highly unstable.
"As soon as the plasma starts generating energy, some natural process switches off the reaction. While this switch-off behaviour is like an inherent safety switch — fusion reactors cannot form runaway reactions — it also means the plasma is difficult to maintain in a stable state for energy generation," said Peter Gallagher, from Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies (DIAS).
Gallagher said that knowing how plasmas become unstable on the sun can help researchers learn how to control them on Earth.