Accidental Discovery of new Method for Creating High-Energy Shockwaves that Accelerate Astrophysical Particles

To produce the wave, scientists used a laser to create a high-energy plasma — a form of matter composed of atoms and charged atomic particles — that expanded into a pre-existing magnetized plasma. Pictured here is an Image of a supernova remnant with a shockwave seen as thin blue boundary at the edge. Credit: NASA, ESA, Zolt Levay

While investigating the behavior of magnetic field lines in plasma, researchers accidentally found indicators of density changes in the plasma, which is what happens when a shock wave of high Mach value is forming.

Similar high energy shock waves occur everywhere in the universe and are significant because they can accelerate the speed of supernova rays and cosmic rays to nearly the speed of light. The fastest of these happen too far away, way beyond our solar system, to be studied close enough to be helpful to researchers and those nearer to Earth travel too fast for spacecraft to collect proper data.

But now, Derek Schaeffer, Will Fox, and researchers from various universities are able to recreate these mysterious waves in a laboratory setting. Schaeffer, a physicist from Princeton, said, “We have for the first time developed a platform for studying highly energetic shocks with greater flexibility and control than is possible with spacecraft.” Fox adds “This lets you understand the evolution of the physical processes going on inside shock waves.”

This wave is created by producing a high-energy plasma with a laser which then expands into another plasma, this one magnetized. Inside a very short billionth of a second, interactions occur that form magnetic shock wave, which itself expands at over 1 million miles per hour. speeds similar to the waves that happen outside of the solar system. Additionally, the lab created waves are ‘collisionless’ like the ones in space where particles are so far distanced they rarely impact each other.

The team plans to continue research and perform more studies that explore the relationships of these high-energy shockwaves and the speed cosmic particles. The full paper is published in Physical Review Letters.

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