The sun, at about 1.4 million kilometers wide, is a big ball of plasma at the center of our solar system. We have studied it for millennia, dating back to ancient history, and now we’re even sending probes to touch it. One of the crucial intriguing aspects of the sun is how its magnetic field influences the entire solar system. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison wished to understand this process better, and so they went full Hollywood mad scientist and constructed their own “mini-sun.”
Their creation, which will not be used for evil and is detailed in the journal Nature Physics on July 29, is millions of times smaller than the actual deal at just 3 meters wide and appears kind of like a human brain being probed with wires and steel.
They’ve dubbed it the Huge Red Ball. The researchers pump in helium gas (which is present within the actual sun) and switch it into plasma. A magnet at the center of the Ball creates a magnetic field, and as soon as the team applies an electric current to the machine, it accurately mimics how the real sun’s plasma and magnetic fields usually function.
“Satellite missions have documented fairly well where the fast wind comes from,” stated Ethan Peterson, lead author on the research and a graduate student at UW-Madison, in a press release. “We had been trying to study particularly how the slow solar wind is generated and how it evolves because it travels towards Earth.”
They turned their attention towards the solar wind, particles that stream out from the sun and into the solar system. Inside the Ball, they had been able to recreate the Parker Spiral, the magnetic area that twists out from the sun by way of the entirety of the solar system. Peterson dubs the team’s recreation as a “large-scale map” of the spiral and confirms how it’s created by the sun’s plasma flows.