Plasmas/Plasma objects/Astronomy

In physics and chemistry, plasma is a state of matter similar to gas in which a certain portion of the particles are ionized.

This image shows the coronal cloud around and near to the Sun as viewed by the Soft X-Ray Telescope (SXT) onboard the orbiting Yohkoh satellite. Credit: NASA Goddard Laboratory for Atmospheres.



Plasmas are a state of matter similar to gas in which a certain portion of the particles are ionized. Heating a gas may ionize its molecules or atoms (reduce or increase the number of electrons in them), thus turning it into a plasma, which contains charged particles: positive ions and negative electrons or ions.[1]

For plasma to exist, ionization is necessary. The term "plasma density" by itself usually refers to the "electron density", that is, the number of free electrons per unit volume. The degree of ionization of a plasma is the proportion of atoms that have lost or gained electrons, and is controlled mostly by the temperature. Even a partially ionized gas in which as little as 1% of the particles are ionized can have the characteristics of a plasma (i.e., response to magnetic fields and high electrical conductivity). The degree of ionization, α is defined as α = ni/(ni + na) where ni is the number density of ions and na is the number density of neutral atoms. The electron density is related to this by the average charge state <Z> of the ions through ne = <Z> ni where ne is the number density of electrons.

"Plasma is the fourth state of matter, consisting of electrons, ions and neutral atoms, usually at temperatures above 104 degrees Kelvin."[2] "The sun and stars are plasmas; the earth's ionosphere, Van Allen belts, magnetosphere, etc., are all plasmas. Indeed, plasma makes up much of the known matter in the universe."[2]

Plasma objects

Representation of upper-atmospheric lightning and electrical-discharge phenomena are displayed. Credit: Abestrobi.

Blue jets differ from sprites in that they project from the top of the cumulonimbus above a thunderstorm, typically in a narrow cone, to the lowest levels of the ionosphere 40 to 50 km (25 to 30 miles) above the earth. In addition, whereas red sprites tend to be associated with significant lightning strikes, blue jets do not appear to be directly triggered by lightning (they do, however, appear to relate to strong hail activity in thunderstorms).[3] They are also brighter than sprites and, as implied by their name, are blue in color. The color is believed to be due to a set of blue and near-ultraviolet emission lines from neutral and ionized molecular nitrogen.

Theoretical plasma astronomy


Because "of the huge spatiotemporal scales of plasma objects in space, the basic accepted views about the theory of plasma stability, which is now better suited for laboratory applications, are already in need of revision."[4]


Arcs rise above an active region on the surface of the Sun in this series of images taken by the STEREO (Behind) spacecraft. Credit: Images courtesy of the NASA STEREO Science Center.

Def. "[a] massive burst of solar wind, other light isotope plasma, and magnetic fields rising above the solar corona or being released into space"[5] is called a coronal mass ejection (CME).


This image of the Northern Lights shows the very rare blue light. Credit: Varjisakka.

"Blue starters were discovered on video from a night time research flight around thunderstorms [6] and appear to be "an upward moving luminous phenomenon closely related to blue jets."[7] They appear to be shorter and brighter than blue jets, reaching altitudes of only up to 20 km.[8]

"Blue starters appear to be blue jets that never quite make it".[9]

At left is an image of the Northern Lights on Earth showing the very rare blue lights.


2 kW Hall thruster is in operation as part of the Hall Thruster Experiment at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Credit: Dstaack.
This is an image of planetary nebula NGC 7662, the Blue Snowball. Credit: Adam Block, Caelum Observatory.
This is a xenon 6 kW Hall thruster in operation at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
This is a color composite image of NGC 7662. Credit: Judy Schmidt.

In spacecraft propulsion, a Hall thruster is a type of ion thruster in which the propellant is accelerated by an electric field. Hall thrusters trap electrons in a magnetic field and then use the electrons to ionize propellant, efficiently accelerate the ions to produce thrust, and neutralize the ions in the plume. Hall thrusters are sometimes referred to as Hall effect thrusters or Hall current thrusters. Hall thrusters are often regarded as a moderate specific impulse (1,600 s) space propulsion technology. Hall thrusters operate on a variety of propellants, the most common being xenon. Other propellants of interest include krypton, argon, bismuth, iodine, magnesium, and zinc.

At left are two images of the plasma associated with and a part of NGC 7662. The color of the nebula is very blue-green where the dominant light source is the 500.7 nm oxygen emission.

The second image is from the Hubble Space Telescope through three filters: F502N (blue), F555W (green), and F658N (red). The object is a planetary nebula (NGC 7662). A small star in the center has produced the nebula.



"The Hessdalen Light [HL] is an unexplained light usually seen in the Hessdalen valley in the municipality of Holtålen in Sør-Trøndelag county, Norway."[10]

"HL [may be] formed by a cluster of macroscopic Coulomb crystals in a plasma produced by the ionization of air and dust by alpha particles during radon decay in the dusty atmosphere."[11]

"HL are characterized mostly by white color and sometimes by red color. It occurs mostly at night, more often in the winter season and with a peak around midnight."[11]

Arcs rise above an active region on the surface of the Sun in this series of images taken by the STEREO (Behind) spacecraft. Credit: Images courtesy of the NASA STEREO Science Center.

"[A] medium-strength flare erupted from the sun on July 19, 2012. The blast also generated the enormous, shimmering plasma loops, which are an example of a phenomenon known as "coronal rain," agency officials said."[12]

"Hot plasma in the corona cooled and condensed along strong magnetic fields in the region" slowly falling back to the solar surface as plasma "rain".[12]

"Many CMEs have also been observed to be unassociated with any obvious solar surface activity"[13].

In the images at right, a CME, or "arcs rise above an active region on the surface of the Sun in this series of images taken by the STEREO (Behind) spacecraft on January 27, 2010. The arcs are plasma, superheated matter made up of moving charged particles (electrons and ions). Just as iron filings arc from one end of a magnet to another, the plasma is sliding in an arc along magnetic field lines. In a movie of STEREO observations made between January 26 and January 29, the dynamic streams were initially just over the Sun’s edge and readily spotted as the Sun rotated them more into view."[14]

"About mid-way through the movie clip, a small coronal mass ejection (a stream of charged particles from the Sun) shoots out and into space at about a million miles per hour, carrying some magnetic field with it. The [first] image shows the beginning of the coronal mass ejection, while the [second] image shows the solar matter leaving the Sun’s corona. Most coronal mass ejections are more bulbous and wide: this one is quite narrow and contained. Nonetheless, NASA solar scientists agree that its speed and characteristics suggest that it was indeed a non-typical coronal mass ejection."[14]

Solar clouds


The February 10, 1956, event "was observed at Sacramento Peak. A bright ball appears above the [Sun's] surface, grows in size and Hα brightness, and explodes upward and outward."[15]

Coronal clouds


Def. "[t]he luminous plasma atmosphere of the Sun or other star, extending millions of kilometres into space, most easily seen during a total solar eclipse"[16] is called a corona, or stellar corona.

A coronal cloud is a cloud, or cloud-like, natural astronomical entity, composed of plasma and usually associated with a star or other astronomical object where the temperature is such that X-rays are emitted. While small coronal clouds are above the photosphere of many different visual spectral type stars, others occupy parts of the interstellar medium (ISM), extending sometimes millions of kilometers into space, or thousands of light-years, depending on the size of the associated object such as a galaxy.

The high temperature of the coronal cloud gives it unusual spectral features. These features have been traced to highly ionized atoms of elements such as iron which indicate a plasma's temperature in excess of 106 Kelvin (MK).

Although a coronal cloud (as part or all of a stellar or galactic corona) is usually "filled with high-temperature plasma at temperatures of T ≈ 1–2 (MK), ... [h]ot active regions and postflare loops have plasma temperatures of T ≈ 2–40 MK."[17]

Intergalactic medium


Coronal clouds of the hot intergalactic medium are likely in the Local Group and intergalactic medium, i.e., extragroup. The copious production of hot intragroup and intergalactic gas is a natural consequence of white dwarf-dominated halos.

"MHD turbulence, generated during cluster-cluster mergers, may be a source of particle reacceleration in the IGM."[18]

Acceleration may be "by compressible turbulence in galaxy clusters, where the interaction between turbulence and the IGM is mediated by plasma instabilities and maintained collisional at scales much smaller than the Coulomb mean free path. In this regime most of the energy of fast modes is channelled into the reacceleration of relativistic particles and the acceleration process approaches a universal behaviour being self-regulated by the back-reaction of the accelerated particles on turbulence itself."[18]

Relativistic "protons contribute to several percent (or less) of the cluster energy, consistent with the FERMI observations of nearby clusters, [...] compressible turbulence at the level of a few percent of the thermal energy can reaccelerate relativistic electrons at GeV energies, that are necessary to explain the observed diffuse radio emission in the form of giant radio halos."[18]


The surface of a MEMS device is cleaned with bright, blue oxygen plasma in a plasma etcher to rid it of carbon contaminants. (100mTorr, 50W RF) Credit: .

Plasma cleaning involves the removal of impurities and contaminants from surfaces through the use of an energetic plasma created from gaseous species. Gases such as argon and oxygen, as well as mixtures such as air and hydrogen/nitrogen are used. The plasma is created by using high frequency voltages (typically kHz to >MHz) to ionise the low pressure gas (typically around 1/1000 atmospheric pressure), although atmospheric pressure plasmas are now also common.


  1. Most of the particles in the universe are in a plasma.

See also



  1. Q-Z Luo, N. D'Angelo, R. L. Merlino (1998). Shock formation in a negative ion plasma. 5. Department of Physics and Astronomy. Retrieved 2011-11-20. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 CK Birdsall, A. Bruce Langdon (October 1, 2004). Plasma Physics via Computer Simulation. New York: CRC Press. pp. 479. ISBN 9780750310253. Retrieved 2011-12-17. 
  3. Fractal Models of Blue Jets, Blue Starters Show Similarity, Differences to Red Sprites. 
  4. A. S. Baranov (May 1, 2005). "Electromagnetic Instability of a Homogeneous Plasma in Interstellar Space". Technical Physics 50 (5): 595-602. doi:10.1134/1.1927214. Retrieved 2013-12-22. 
  5. "coronal mass ejection, In: Wiktionary". San Francisco, California: Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. June 21, 2013. Retrieved 2013-07-07.
  6. Blue Jets & Blue Starters - the video. 
  7. The Role of the Space Shuttle Videotapes in the Discovery of Sprites, Jets, and Elves. GHCC: Lightning and Atmospheric Electricity Research. 
  8. Blue jets. 
  9. Victor P. Pasko. Fractal models of blue jets, blue starters show similarity, differences to red sprites. 
  10. "Hessdalen light". Wikipedia (San Francisco, California: Wikimedia Foundation, Inc). July 26, 2013. Retrieved 2013-08-02. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 G.S. Paiva, C.A. Taft (October 2010). "A hypothetical dusty plasma mechanism of Hessdalen lights". Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics 72 (16): 1200-3. doi:10.1016/j.jastp.2010.07.022. Retrieved 2013-08-02. 
  12. 12.0 12.1 Mike Wall (February 21, 2013). Super-Hot Plasma 'Rain' Falls on Sun in Amazing Video. Yahoo! News. Retrieved 2013-02-23. 
  13. David F. Webb, Timothy A. Howard (2012). "Coronal Mass Ejections: Observations". Living Reviews in Solar Physics 9: 3. Retrieved 2012-11-11. 
  14. 14.0 14.1 Paul Przyborski (February 13, 2010). Coronal Mass Ejection in late January 2010. NASA Earth Observatory. Retrieved 2012-11-26. 
  15. Harold Zirin (October 1964). "The Limb Flare of November 20, 1960: a Coronal Phenomenon". Astrophysical Journal 140 (10): 1216-35. doi:10.1086/148019. 
  16. "corona, In: Wiktionary". San Francisco, California: Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. May 9, 2012. Retrieved 2012-06-28.
  17. Markus J. Aschwanden (2007). Erdelyi R. ed. "Fundamental Physical Processes in Coronae: Waves, Turbulence, Reconnection, and Particle Acceleration In: Waves & Oscillations in the Solar Atmosphere: Heating and Magneto-Seismology". Proceedings IAU Symposium 3 (S247): 257–68. doi:10.1017/S1743921308014956. 
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 G. Brunetti, A. Lazarian (April 2011). "Particle reacceleration by compressible turbulence in galaxy clusters: effects of a reduced mean free path". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 412 (2): 817-24. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2966.2010.17937.x. Retrieved 2014-02-09.