The Sun is a huge spinning ball of plasma with a magnetic field, and where that magnetic field weakens, solar winds can escape.
Physicists have managed to recreate these same effects in a lab for the first time, this means we can study our star up close without a trip through the Solar System.
It is important to understand how this magnetic field and its associated plasma flows behave to improve our understanding of how and when solar storms can impact Earth and potentially put our communication systems and infrastructure under severe strain.
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The mini-sun was set up inside a lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, it maps the broader effects of Parker's spiral (named after its discoverer, American solar astrophysicist Eugene Parker). Specifically, this is the way the Sun's magnetic field and its solar winds flow like a ballerina's skirt through the surrounding planets.
"The solar wind is highly variable, but there are basically two types: fast and slow," says physicist Ethan Peterson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"Satellite missions have documented very well where the fast wind comes from, so we were trying to study specifically how the slow solar wind is generated and how it evolves as it travels to Earth."
To further investigate Parker's spiral and its solar winds, Peterson and his colleagues created the Big Red Ball: a hollow sphere containing plasma three meters wide, with a strong magnet and its center and several measurement probes.
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The helium gas was then ionised to create plasma at temperatures of 100,000 degrees Celsius, before the whole mixture was spun using an electric current and the magnetic forces within the machine.
What the scientists have created is a miniature Parker Spiral that can be continuously monitored in three dimensions.
"The satellite measurements are pretty consistent with Parker's Spiral model, but only at one point at a time, so you'd never be able to do a simultaneous, large-scale map like we can in the lab," Peterson says . . "Our experimental measurements confirm Parker's Theory of how it is created by these plasma flows."
In addition to measuring the stretches and twists of the Sun's magnetic field, which have not been extensively explored before, Big Red Ball was also able to generate its own plasma shots.
For the first time, scientists were able to take a detailed look at how they are actually generated, as the high-speed plasma finds weakened spots in the magnetic field.
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While this small-scale Parker spiral can't fully replicate the reality that stretches across space, it will certainly help researchers uncover some of the physics behind how our star's magnetic field and plasma cycles work - and what we can expect from them in the future.
The researchers point out that this does not eliminate the need for solar probe missions in the future: the Parker Solar Probe for example, launched in August 2018, is on its way to the sun. It will dive below the surface of Alfvén - the point on the solar surface where solar winds are born - to measure those solar winds in more detail than ever before.
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Meanwhile, the Big Red Ball is already available for other researchers to use, run tests and make measurements - an essential resource to better understand our Solar System.
"Our work shows that laboratory experiments can also get at the fundamental physics of these processes," Peterson says. .
"And because Big Red Ball is now funded as a National User Facility, it says to the scientific community: if you want to study the physics of the solar wind, you can do it here."
The research was published in Nature Physics .
SOURCE / University of Wisconsin-Madison