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May 24, 2023

Simulating Solar Flares

In a laboratory at Caltech, NSF supported researchers have recreated the intense bursts of electromagnetic radiation that occur when the sun produces a solar flare, revealing origins of these plasma loops.

Credit: U.S. National Science Foundation.

Solar flares blast energetic particles and radiation that can endanger astronauts, damage spacecraft and possibly power grids. Could we protect ourselves if we knew more about this eruptive behavior? We'll explore the plasma physics of the sun in the U.S. National Science Foundation's "Discovery Files."

Coronal loops are arches of plasma attached to magnetic fields that protrude from the Sun’s surface. These loops usually evolve slowly but sometimes suddenly erupt. During an eruption, the energy is billions of times stronger than the most powerful nuclear explosion. The eruption is called a solar flare and is a key driver of space weather.

NSF supported researchers from Caltech have recreated the physics of these intense bursts in a lab. Inside a vacuum chamber with twin electrodes mimicking the solar surface, a capacitor is discharged that creates a miniature solar coronal loop. This loop erupts and emits a burst of X-rays just like on the sun.

The lab-created loops are structurally identical but have a centimeter scale instead of the millions of meters on the Sun. The lab experiments enabled exploration of fundamental questions about how these loops behave, and as a result, the ability to better prepare for solar flare occurrences.

While the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere usually shields against space weather, a greater understanding of the dangers in space will be crucial as we return to the moon and head towards exploring other planets.

To hear more science and engineering news, including the researchers making it, subscribe to "NSF's Discovery Files" podcast.

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