Electric Powerhouse

The Egg nebula. Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA); Acknowledgment: W. Sparks (STScI) and R. Sahai (JPL). Click to enlarge.

October 28, 2020

The Universe behaves according to the laws of electrodynamics.

The prevailing opinion about “planetary” nebulae usually involves gases and dust “blowing” through them, created by “shock waves” from exploding stars. In many cases, a nebula is described as a “star factory,” because X-ray radiation, or extreme ultraviolet, are thought to mean that nuclear fusion reactions are occurring.

In an Electric Universe, plasma, not hot gas, flows through space. The physics of electricity applies to nebulae, not the kinetic energy of wind. Within a planetary nebula are one or more plasma sheaths, or “double layers,” that act like capacitors, alternately storing and releasing electric charge. Current flow increases and decreases within the sheaths inside and outside of the shell.

A neon lamp that emits light only at the excitation frequency of a specific gas is a more correct model for nebulae. Electricity passing through neon gas causes it to form a plasma and to glow a pale yellow. Other gases, such as oxygen or hydrogen, produce blue and red light, while heavier elements emit their own colors.

Plasma behavior is unfamiliar in many ways. It is often difficult to discern that plasma is completely different from a gas. Plasma’s similarities to gas are overshadowed by its failure to correspond with gas kinetics. Since more than 90% of the light frequencies from planetary nebulae are in the ionized oxygen range, they should be thought of as oxygen discharge tubes and not balls of gas.

As elementary physics teaches, charged particles in motion constitute an electric current. An electric current is accompanied by a magnetic field that wraps around the current and diminishes with the distance from it. Magnetic fields get stronger when more charged particles move in the same direction or when they move faster. Ions moving through the magnetic field are squeezed toward the axis. Plasma physicists refer to this as the “Bennett pinch.”

An electric discharge in a plasma cloud creates a double layer along its axis. Positive charge builds up on one side and negative charge on the other. A strong electric field exists between the sides, and if enough current is applied the double layer glows, otherwise it is invisible.

Double layers and current filaments also respond to the movement of interstellar electric charge in a circuit that threads through the galaxy. They are mostly dark mode phenomena because of their low current density, but the magnetic fields they produce are apparent and detectable in the Bennett pinches that arise.

These ideas are unfamiliar to astronomers—they seldom think about electric charges. They think of moving charges from the Sun as a “solar wind” instead of an electric current. They think of charged particles impacting a planet or moon as a “rain” instead of an electrical discharge. They think of charged particles moving along a magnetic field as a “jet” instead of a field-aligned Birkeland current. They think of abrupt changes in the density and speed of charged particles as a “shock wave” instead of a double layer that can even explode.

As astronomer Amy Acheson wrote:

“It’s been over 300 years since Newton encountered his apple, and his conception of gravity, now modified by Einstein and supplemented with similar mechanical theories of solids, liquids and gasses, has become the popular vision of space—an almost-empty universe of self-contained bodies. And now it’s been 100 years since Birkeland encountered his aurora, and his conception of electric currents in space, developed by such pioneers as Irving Langmuir and Hannes Alfven, has been a footnote to standard theory, rarely called upon except to explain the occasional curiosity in space.”

Stephen Smith

The Thunderbolts Picture of the Day is generously supported by the Mainwaring Archive Foundation.

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