It's windy out there in space

Beware high winds Credit: Source: via Flickr

Lab experiment at University of Iowa replicates phenomenon of space turbulence


Many of us think of space as an airless void filled with celestial bodies, debris from human space exploration, and aliens marveling at our primitive ways. Which generally is accurate, but it also turns out that there are bursts of turbulence in space similar to gusty winds on Earth, according to researchers at the University of Iowa. In a paper published Monday in the online edition of Physical Review Letters (the journal of the American Physical Society), scientists at the University report they were able to directly measure in their lab turbulence similar to what occurs in space. From Iowa Now:

“Turbulence is not restricted to environments here on Earth, but also arises pervasively throughout the solar system and beyond, driving chaotic motions in the ionized gas, or plasma, that fills the universe,” says Gregory Howes, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the UI and lead author of the paper. “It is thought to play a key role in heating the atmosphere of the sun, the solar corona, to temperatures of a million degrees Celsius, nearly a thousand times hotter than the surface of the sun.

“Turbulence also regulates the formation of the stars throughout the galaxy, determines the radiation emitted from the super massive black hole at the center of our galaxy and mediates the effects that space weather has on the Earth.“

Thank you, space turbulence! Except for when you are messing up satellite communications and destroying high-voltage transformers in Earth-based electric power grids with your geomagnetic ways, that is. Then you sort of suck. Space turbulence is dependent on the interaction of something called Alfven waves, which the researchers refer to as "the fundamental building block of astrophysical plasma turbulence." Basically the turbulence is caused when different Alfven waves collide, causing a third wave to be formed, etc. I know that's a little complex. Let me break it down, with apologies in advance for being so obvious. It all starts, of course, with modern theories of anisotropic Alfvenic plasma turbulence and their roots in the equations of incompressible magnetohydrodynamics, known in layman's parlance as |@z+\-/@t-\+(va.V)z+/- = -(z-/+.V)z+/- -- V p/p0. Then you just plug in a bunch of numbers. Now read this:

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