Science

Scientists Can Create Mini Solar Eruptions With The Magnetic Reconnection Experiment

If you've ever seen the awe-inspiring beauty of the Northern Lights, you can thank the sun. Those colorful, dancing auroras are actually geomagnetic storms caused by violent solar eruptions of charged plasma, and while they dazzle they also interfere with GPS, radio, and sometimes even air travel. Discovering how and why they happen could help protect us—and our fragile technology. The only problem? You'd have to watch them happen, and the sun is really, really far away. Enter Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory's Magnetic Reconnection Experiment (MRX), where scientists are making solar storms small enough to observe in the lab.

Related: What Are The Northern Lights?

How It Works

True to its name, the Magnetic Reconnection Experiment is all about the study of magnetic reconnection: the phenomenon that takes place when charged gases known as plasmas get close to one another. When that happens, their magnetic field lines break apart and reconnect, releasing an explosive amount of energy on par with millions of tons of dynamite. A geomagnetic storm begins as a single solar flare, which erupts into a coronal mass ejection, which zaps our magnetosphere with a monstrous dose of energy, and magnetic reconnection is behind every step in the process. Makes sense to study how it happens, right?

Related: This Is How Soon You'd Die Around The Solar System

MRX researchers mimic this process by sending 10,000 volts of electricity into a chamber filled with hydrogen gas. The electricity superheats the gas to the level of 100,000º C, and boom: magnetic reconnection. It happens in one thousandth of a second, and researchers repeat the process around 300 times a day.

Related: What Happens If GPS Fails?

Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory physicist Hantao Ji stands in front of the Magnetic Reconnection Experiment (MRX).

What They Hope To Discover

One big mystery about magnetic reconnection is how it can happen so fast. Current theories predict that it should occur thousands of times more slowly than it does. Getting to the bottom of that and other questions could improve our predictions of solar eruptions and geomagnetic storms so we can take precautions and better protect both the people on Earth and astronauts in space. It could even tell us more about how our sun and other stars formed.

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Written By
Curiosity Staff
February 15, 2017