Gigantic plasma space tsunami recreated with help of high-powered lasers

29 Oct 2014

NGC 5189: An unusually complex planetary nebula. Image via NASA, ESA, Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

To understand some of the most powerful explosive forces in the universe, a team of researchers is using high-powered lasers to recreate cosmic explosions in the safety of the lab.

According to their release from a recent US plasma physics meeting, the researchers from the University of Rochester’s OMEGA EP Facility focused their incredibly powerful lasers on objects narrower than a pencil.

Both objects, in this case two pieces of plastic, were placed in a vacuum and fired at by the two lasers at a temperature that reached somewhere in the region of 10m degrees Celsius.

By doing this, they were able to create colliding jets of plasma intertwined with plasma filaments and self-generated magnetic fields, capable of reaching pressures of over a billion times higher than seen on earth.

A diagram showing converging UV laser beams illuminating the flat plastic targets to produce expanding plasma shockwaves. Image via University of Rochester.

In their efforts to harness the power of these micro-sized cosmic explosions, the team stumbled upon an unexpected result that they rather dramatically describe as the equivalent of a ‘gigantic plasma tsunami in space’.

These ‘shock waves’ represent the thin areas found at the outskirts of collapsed supernovas, which includes both the super-hot plasma that is also surrounded by the colder material that makes up the vastness of space.

When the two columns of plasma created by the pieces of vaporised plastic interacted, they formed into clumps of instable plasma in a process known as the ‘Weibel instability’ that had, until now, only been theorised.

The research team, led by William Fox, along with his colleague Gennady Fiksel, now hope to use their findings to explain how exactly cosmic plasma and rays form.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic