- Using data from a NASA aircraft, scientists have identified signs of an energy source in the solar wind that has caught the attention of fusion researchers and that could revolutionize nuclear power.
The discovery intends to solve a decades-old mystery: What heats and accelerates solar wind?
According to researchers from NASA “The sun is literally boiling itself away” trying to liken this phenomenon to the steam from a pot of water boiling. However, solar wind does something that steam in a kitchen never does. As steam rises from a pot, it slows and cool. As solar wind leaves the sun, it accelerates and something inside solar winds continue to add heat even as it blows into the cold of space.
Since decades, finding this “something” has been the goal of researchers and the answer has been hiding in a dataset from one of NASA’S oldest spacecrafts, a solar probe named Wind.
The source of the heating in solar wind is ion cyclotron waves. According to researchers, ion cyclotron can o much more than accelerate and heat up solar wind, “they also account for some of the wind’s very strange properties”.
The behavior of heavy ions in the solar wind is what intrigues fusion researchers. Researchers explain: “When you look at fusion reactors on Earth, one of the big challenges is contamination. Heavy ions that sputter off the metal walls of the fusion chamber get into the plasma where the fusion takes place. Heavy ions radiate heat. This can cool the plasma so much that it shuts down the fusion reaction.”
Ion cyclotron waves of the type researchers have found in the solar wind might provide a way to reverse this process. Theoretically, they could be used to heat and/or remove the heavy ions, restoring thermal balance to the fusing plasma.
Image Source: NASA