A miniature gravity-simulated sun could help us prepare for deadly solar storms

The sulfuric plasma is held back by sound waves inside a tiny glass bulb. (Image credit: Kulakis et al., Physical Review Letters, 2023)

Physicists have created a mini-sun with their own simulation of gravity to investigate the causes of extreme space weather.

The tiny sun, made up of superheated plasma inside a 1-inch (3 cm) wide glass sphere, created sound waves that contained the swirling plasma in the same way that gravity acts on a real sun.

Studying this mini-sun could help scientists predict extreme stellar events that could cause power outages and bring down the internet. (will open in a new tab) and even send satellites tumbling to Earth (will open in a new tab), according to a study published in Jan. 20 in Physical Review Letters (will open in a new tab).

“Sound fields act like gravity, at least when it comes to gas convection,” study lead author John Kulakis. (will open in a new tab)This was stated by a physicist from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). (will open in a new tab). “Using microwaves (will open in a new tab)By creating sound in a spherical bulb with hot plasma, we got a gravitational field that is 1000 times stronger than Earth’s gravity.”

On the subject: Ancient solar storm smashed Earth into the wrong part of the solar cycle – and scientists are concerned (will open in a new tab)

Sunny weather gone crazy

The sun is a giant ball of plasma whose charged ions swirl over its surface, creating powerful magnetic fields. (will open in a new tab). Because magnetic field lines cannot cross each other, sometimes these fields intertwine and then suddenly break apart, causing bursts of radiation called solar flares or huge plumes of solar material called coronal mass ejections (CMEs). Once launched, CMEs travel at millions of miles per hour, sweeping up charged particles from the solar wind, forming a giant combined wavefront that (if directed toward Earth) can cause geomagnetic storms.

The exact details of when and how these storms form are not exactly known. Previous attempts to reproduce the conditions at the center of the Sun have met with mixed success, mainly because the Earth’s gravity tends to disrupt the simulated effects, changing them in unforeseen ways.

To shed light on the situation, physicists caught sulfur. (will open in a new tab) gas inside a glass sphere before blasting it with microwaves to turn it into a scorching 5,000-degree Fahrenheit (2,760-degree Celsius) plasma. The sound waves created by the rotating ionized gas acted as a substitute for gravity, confining the burning mixture in patterns remarkably similar to the plasma flows seen on the surface of the Sun and those predicted by theory. (will open in a new tab). By capturing these streams on camera, scientists hope to gain some insight into the fundamental workings of our star.

The researchers say their next steps will be to expand the experiment, allowing them to more accurately reflect conditions on the Sun and observe the gas swirl for longer periods of time.

“People were so interested in trying to simulate spherical convection with lab experiments that they actually did the experiment on the space shuttle because they couldn’t get a strong enough central force field on the ground,” writes Seth Putterman, senior author of the study. (will open in a new tab)This is stated in a statement by a physics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We showed that our system of microwave-generated sound produced such a strong gravity that Earth’s gravity was not a factor. We no longer need to fly into space to conduct these experiments.”

Solar activity, which astronomers have been tracking since 1775, rises and falls in roughly an 11-year cycle. Solar activity has been particularly high recently, with sunspot numbers nearly double the NOAA forecasts. (will open in a new tab). The increased activity sent out waves of high-energy plasma and X-rays. (will open in a new tab) explosions crash into Earth’s magnetic fields, shoot down Starlink satellites, start radios (will open in a new tab) blackouts and causing auroras in the south, in Pennsylvania, Iowa and Oregon (will open in a new tab). Solar activity is expected to peak in 2025, and more flares are likely to hit Earth in the coming years.

The largest solar storm in recent history was the Carrington event of 1859, which released about the same amount of energy as 10 billion 1 megaton atomic bombs. Crashing into the Earth, a powerful shower of solar particles fried telegraph systems around the world and caused auroras brighter than the light of a full moon to appear as far south as the Caribbean Sea.

Scientists warn that if such an event were to occur today, it would cause trillions of dollars in damage, cause massive power outages and endanger thousands of lives. A massive solar storm in 1989 released a billion-dollar plume of gas that caused a power outage throughout the Canadian province of Quebec, according to NASA. (will open in a new tab).

But that may not even touch the surface of what our star is capable of throwing at us. Scientists are also investigating the cause of a series of sudden and colossal spikes in radiation levels. (will open in a new tab) recorded in ancient tree rings throughout the history of the Earth. The leading theory is that the bursts could have come from the sun causing solar storms 80 times more powerful than the Carrington event, but scientists have yet to rule out any other potentially unknown cosmic source.

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