This week we were able to learn a little bit on plasma from a foremost expert, Dr. Gekelman. We learned about the different qualities of plasma, and what characteristics are featured by this elusive 4th state of matter. He began with a physical description of plasma as a superheated gas in which the electrons are given so much energy that they can dissociate and reassociate with their respective atoms freely, which requires a massive amount of energy. How much energy? Well Dr. Gekelman's lab alone uses more energy than the entire city of Westwood combined! He also deals with relatively cooler plasma which ranges from a mere 12 million degrees Celsius to a much cozier 300 million degrees Celsius. All this energy and heat is put together to create plasma that only lasts a billionth of a second; "a long time" and "easy to record" according to Gekelman. The scales this man is forced to work with, along with such a dangerous material, is absolutely mind blowing. But what really shocked me is how the sun's plasma energy effects us in so many ways.
The sun is really just a ball of plasma with nuclear fusion going on in it's center. But with 99.86% of the solar system's mass, we sometimes forget that the sun is enormous. The sun also gives a lot of it's energy off through different types of waves and rays. We are most familiar with light rays that reflect off the objects around us and allow us to see things around us. But that is such a small section of the waves of energy around us. The sun also gives off ultraviolet rays which contain higher energy due to the lower frequency waves, which end up causing harm to our atmosphere as they reach our planet, and can lead to sunburn after prolonged exposure. Going down in wavelength and even higher in frequency, we have xrays and gamma rays. These extremely potent waves carry a lot of energy with them, but our atmosphere has developed to shield us from these waves.
On the other extreme end of the wave spectrum, are the FM and AM radio waves that we refer to daily while listening to the radio. Our atmosphere is permeable to these kinds of waves which makes satellite radio possible, and is our main attempt at interstellar communication since these very long waves can travel much further than their higher energy counterparts on the other end of the spectrum that get trapped or disrupted in our atmosphere.
All these types of waves are known as electromagnetic waves. And as the name implies, these waves have both electrical and magnetic components. But once again, Earth is normally able to deflect these strong energy properties with its own magnetic field. However, every now and then the energy of the wave is greater than our magnetic field can deflect, and an electrical surge or magnetic storm hits the surface of the Earth. City blackouts, system-wide shutdowns, disabling the internet, and disrupting electronic devices are some of the major effects these storms can have on our planet.
Although the sun is about 90 million miles away from our home planet, it has drastic effects. All of the energy, magnetism, and electrical power doesn't just disappear. A lot of it is deflected by the atmosphere or magnetic field, but a good portion is also absorbed by the atmosphere, the land, and organic material on Earth. All of the energy our planet holds on to is a direct reason it can sustain life. This happy medium of shielding ourselves from too much energy and absorbing enough to maintain life, is what makes the Earth-Sun relationship very unique. And in large part, we have the plasma in the sun to thank for all of these things. Without this high energy state of matter that has been around for nearly 4.6 billion years, we wouldn't be here today.