On Earth, we deal with simple matters like liquids, gasses, and solids. Our Sun, on the other hand, is a giant ball of unstable fluid known as plasma. With plasma in short supply on Earth, we struggle to study how it works, but new observations of the Sun’s atmosphere have revealed some of the secrets behind plasma’s instability. This could lead to the development of a more efficient and safer source of nuclear power.
Dr. Eoin Carley, postdoctoral research at Trinity College Dublin and the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies (DIAS), explains this new discovery:
We worked closely with scientists at the Paris Observatory and performed observations of the Sun with a large radio telescope located in Nançay in central France. We combined the radio observations with ultraviolet cameras on NASA’s space-based Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft to show that plasma on the sun can often emit radio light that pulses like a light-house. We have known about this activity for decades, but our use of space and ground-based equipment allowed us to image the radio pulses for the first time and see exactly how plasmas become unstable in the solar atmosphere.
By understanding the source of the Sun’s plasma instability, scientists can then discover new methods of stabilizing plasma for use in nuclear fusion. Currently, we use nuclear fission to generate power, which breaks up plasma atoms. Fusion, on the other hand, fuses plasma atoms together and provides a safer and more efficient power source. It doesn’t require radioactive fuel and produces waste mostly made up of inert helium.
Unfortunately, nuclear fusion plasmas remain highly unstable, and a natural process prevents the reaction necessary to generate energy. By understanding how these plasmas become unstable—by observing changes in the sun’s atmosphere—we might just have the information we need to learn how to control them to make nuclear fusion a reality.
Despite this new discovery, we still need to wait to see if it pays off in practical applications. The scientists involved with this research are optimistic, but even in ideal circumstances, it will take quite some time before the world can benefit from a functional nuclear fusion reactor. Nevertheless, the new equipment and techniques used to acquire this data will continue to provide new useful observations as time progresses. We still have a lot to learn about plasma, but scientists have now overcome a major hurdle that once prevented us from defining the unknown.
Top image credit: NASA