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Electric Cosmos

The Universe

Plasma Cosmology

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Aug 15, 2005
Electric Lights on Saturn

The discovery of electric currents everywhere in space makes the meteorological vocabulary of astrophysicists obsolete.

This false-color image of Saturn in ultraviolet light shows the complete circle of an aurora around Saturn’s south pole and part of the aurora around its north pole. From almost the beginning of the space age, plasma physicists have known that electric currents flow from regions high above Earth’s equator to the auroral regions around the magnetic poles and that these circuits power the auroras. Presumably, Saturn’s auroras are lit by similar circuitry.

But conventional astrophysicists persist in describing auroras with meteorological metaphors: “hydrogen gas excited by electron bombardment” that responds to “changes in the solar wind.” The inertia of prior belief in the dogma that “you can’t get charge separation in space” obscures their perception that the charged particles they measure are in fact separated and that the movement of those charged particles in fact constitutes an electric current. From the measurements of charged-particle movements in Earth’s plasma sheath, plasma physicists have mapped the complex electrical circuits that not only power the auroras but also generate magnetic storms, constitute the so-called radiation belts, likely produce Earth’s magnetic field, and may drive the weather.

Similar circuits but at a larger  scale and with more power likely flow in Saturn’s plasma sheath. They would be responsible for Saturn’s auroras as well as its polar hot spots, its storms, its lightning, the occasional spokes on its ring system, and probably its high-speed and banded wind system. With electric currents flowing everywhere our spacecraft have gone, we must look to plasma physicists and electrical engineers for explanations that fit the facts.


David Talbott, Wallace Thornhill
Mel Acheson
  CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Michael Armstrong, Dwardu Cardona, Ev Cochrane,
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