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Space Plasma

Sun Composite Image

This composite image demonstrates an intense Coronal Mass Ejection (CME). The Space Plasma group at LASP studies fundamental plasma processes throughout our solar system such as reconnection, shocks, Alfven waves, and ion heating. (Courtesy SOHO/EIT/LASCO)

Observing the sun’s surface or observing an active aurora on Earth motivates us to understand this elusive fourth state of matter. By using space-based measurements, we are trying to understand how energy flows through the system, how energy is converted, and what causes quiet plasma to erupt into an explosive energy release

Analyzing different plasma conditions is important to understanding space plasmas; different instruments are used to study plasmas, depending on condition and location. For example, the plasma between the Earth and sun is tenuous—so tenuous that we cannot see it—therefore we send space probes to measure it directly. In contrast, temperatures of plasmas nearer the sun are too high for instruments to survive; however since the plasma is dense at the sun the plasma can be remotely imaged by cameras.

One goal of LASP research is to fundamentally understand space plasma interactions and processes, including:

  • Magnetic reconnection and particle energization
  • Alfven waves, collisionless shocks, turbulence, parallel (to B) electric fields, instabilities

We can now actually see much of solar wind with coronagraphs and heliospheric imagers, but imaging cannot provide the detailed physical information provided by in-situ sampling of the solar wind and other space plasmas. The upcoming Magnetospheric MultiScale (MMS) mission, scheduled to launch in 2014, will study how magnetic energy can be converted to kinetic particle energy. The Solar Probe Plus mission, set for launch in 2018, will investigate how solar wind particles get accelerated.