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Plasma astrophysics

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A field of physics that is growing in interest worldwide that tackles such astrophysical phenomena as the source of violent space weather and the formation of stars.

Stewart Prager

Stewart Prager was the sixth director of PPPL. He joined the Laboratory in 2009 after a long career at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. At Wisconsin, he led research on the “Madison Symmetric Torus” (MST) experiment and headed a center that studied plasmas in both the laboratory and the cosmos. He also co-discovered the “bootstrap current” there—a key finding that has influenced the design of today’s tokamaks. He earned his PhD in plasma physics from Columbia University.

Tied in knots: New insights into plasma behavior focus on twists and turns

Whether zipping through a star or a fusion device on Earth, the electrically charged particles that make up the fourth state of matter better known as plasma are bound to magnetic field lines like beads on a string. Unfortunately for plasma physicists who study this phenomenon, the magnetic field lines often lack simple shapes that equations can easily model. Often they twist and knot like pretzels. Sometimes, when the lines become particularly twisted, they snap apart and join back together, ejecting blobs of plasma and tremendous amounts of energy.

Tied in knots: New insights into plasma behavior focus on twists and turns

Whether zipping through a star or a fusion device on Earth, the electrically charged particles that make up the fourth state of matter better known as plasma are bound to magnetic field lines like beads on a string. Unfortunately for plasma physicists who study this phenomenon, the magnetic field lines often lack simple shapes that equations can easily model. Often they twist and knot like pretzels. Sometimes, when the lines become particularly twisted, they snap apart and join back together, ejecting blobs of plasma and tremendous amounts of energy.

Confirming a little-understood source of the process behind northern lights and the formation of stars

Fast magnetic reconnection, the rapid convergence, separation and explosive snapping together of magnetic field lines, gives rise to northern lights, solar flares and geomagnetic storms that can disrupt cell phone service and electric power grids. The phenomenon takes place in plasma, the state of matter composed of free electrons and atomic nuclei, or ions, that makes up 99 percent of the visible universe. But whether fast reconnection can occur in partially ionized plasma — plasma that includes atoms as well as free electrons and ions — is not well understood.

Confirming a little-understood source of the process behind northern lights and the formation of stars

Fast magnetic reconnection, the rapid convergence, separation and explosive snapping together of magnetic field lines, gives rise to northern lights, solar flares and geomagnetic storms that can disrupt cell phone service and electric power grids. The phenomenon takes place in plasma, the state of matter composed of free electrons and atomic nuclei, or ions, that makes up 99 percent of the visible universe. But whether fast reconnection can occur in partially ionized plasma — plasma that includes atoms as well as free electrons and ions — is not well understood.

Novel experiment validates a widely speculated and important mechanism during the formation of stars and planets

How have stars and planets developed from the clouds of dust and gas that once filled the cosmos? A novel experiment at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) has demonstrated the validity of a widespread theory known as “magnetorotational instability,” or MRI, that seeks to explain the formation of heavenly bodies.

Steven Cowley, PPPL director, explains “the Magnetic Universe” at Science on Saturday

Steven Cowley, director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), has spent a lifetime working to develop fusion energy as a viable source of electricity. But in his spare time, he enjoys investigating the role of magnetism in the universe.   

“I’m a fusion nut and I spent most of my career talking about how to make fusion work,” Cowley told the audience at PPPL’s second Ronald E. Hatcher Science on Saturday lecture on “The Magnetic Universe” at PPPL on Jan. 19. “I’ve also done some work understanding magnetic field lines in the universe. It’s kind of a hobby.” 

Turn, turn, turn: New findings bring physicists closer to understanding the formation of planets and stars

Down a hallway in the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), scientists study the workings of a machine in a room stuffed with wires and metal components. The researchers seek to explain the behavior of vast clouds of dust and other material that encircle stars and black holes and collapse to form planets and other celestial bodies. 

Turn, turn, turn: New findings bring physicists closer to understanding the formation of planets and stars

Down a hallway in the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), scientists study the workings of a machine in a room stuffed with wires and metal components. The researchers seek to explain the behavior of vast clouds of dust and other material that encircle stars and black holes and collapse to form planets and other celestial bodies.

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