Mini sun with simulated gravity could help prepare us for deadly solar storms

The miniature sun mimicked the whirling plasma cloud by using sound waves.

To better understand the origins of severe space weather, physicists have built a miniature sun with its own artificial gravity.

The small sun created sound waves that restrained the spinning plasma similarly to how gravity restrains the real sun, which is made up of a superheated plasma inside of a 1-inch-wide (3-centimeter) glass sphere.

According to a research published Jan. 20 in the journal Physical Review Letters, studying this mini-sun might aid scientists in forecasting the severe stellar occurrences that can disrupt power supplies, the internet, and even send satellites hurtling toward Earth .

According to main research author John Koulakis, a physicist at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), "Sound fields operate like gravity, at least when it comes to promoting convection in gas" (opens in new tab). We created a gravitational field that is 1,000 times greater than Earth's gravity by using microwave-generated sound in a spherical flask of heated plasma.

crazy solar weather

The sun is a massive ball of plasma with swirling charged ions that produce strong magnetic fields. Sometimes these fields coil into knots before abruptly breaking to generate solar flares or massive plumes of solar material known as coronal mass ejections because magnetic field lines cannot cross one another (CMEs). Once they are created, CMEs move at speeds of millions of miles per hour, collecting charged particles from the solar wind to create a massive, coupled wavefront that may cause geomagnetic storms if it is oriented toward Earth.

It's not quite understood how and when these storms exactly arise. Previous attempts to mimic the circumstances in the sun's core have had varying degrees of success, mostly because the Earth's gravity has a tendency to interfere with the mimicked effects and change them in unexpected ways.

The physicists confined sulfur gas within a glass sphere and then blasted it with microwaves to turn it into a burning plasma with a temperature of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit in order to shed some light on the problem (2,760 degrees Celsius). In place of gravity, the whirling, ionized gas created sound waves that constrained the burning mixture into patterns strikingly like the plasma flows seen on the surface of the sun and those anticipated by theory. Scientists think that by photographing these flows, they may learn more about the inner workings of our star.

The next step, according to the researchers, will be to scale up their experiment so they can watch the gas whirl for extended periods of time and more accurately mimic the circumstances on the sun.

Seth Putterman, a UCLA professor of physics and the study's senior author, said in a statement, "People were so interested in trying to model spherical convection with laboratory experiments that they actually put an experiment in the space shuttle because they couldn't get a strong enough central force field on the ground." "We demonstrated that the gravity produced by our system of microwave-generated sound was so strong that it did not affect the situation. These tests may now be conducted on Earth without traveling to space."

Astronomers have been monitoring the increase and fall of solar activity since 1775, and it follows an approximately 11-year pattern. Recent solar activity has been very strong, with roughly twice as many sunspots than predicted by NOAA (opens in new tab). The heightened activity has caused radio blackouts, the destruction of Starlink satellites, and auroras as far south as Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Oregon by hurling waves of high-energy plasma and X-ray bursts into Earth's magnetic fields (opens in new tab). Many more flares are projected to strike Earth in the upcoming years, with the sun's activity expected to reach its peak in 2025.

The 1859 Carrington Event, which produced about the same amount of energy as 10 billion 1-megaton atomic bombs, was the biggest solar storm in recent memory. After crashing with Earth, the strong stream of solar particles destroyed telegraph networks all across the world and caused auroras to shine as far south as the Caribbean that were brighter than the full moon's brightness.

Scientists warn that if a comparable incident occurred now, it would result in extensive blackouts, cost trillions of dollars in damage, and put thousands of lives in danger. According to NASA, a powerful solar storm in 1989 unleashed a billion-ton cloud of gas that resulted in a complete blackout of the Canadian province of Quebec .

However, this could only be the beginning of what our star might throw at us. Researchers are also looking into the reasons for a string of abrupt and enormous radiation spikes seen in ancient tree rings throughout Earth's history. Although solar storms 80 times more strong than the Carrington Event are a leading idea for the origin of the spikes, scientists have not completely ruled out the possibility of another unidentified cosmic cause.