5 weird things that happen in outer space

5 weird things: Earth with blue lines and a white border around them, buffeted by orange bubbles.
Supersonic shocks are one of 5 weird things that happen in outer space. Image via NASA.

Originally posted December 9, 2021, by Mara Johnson-Groh at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland.

5 weird things that happen in outer space

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know space is weird. But just how weird might surprise you. Space is dominated by invisible electromagnetic forces that we typically don’t feel. It’s also full of bizarre types of matter that we never experience on Earth. Here are five unearthly things that happen almost exclusively in outer space.

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The state of plasma

On Earth, matter typically assumes one of three states: solid, liquid or gas. But in space, 99.9% of normal matter is in an entirely different form: plasma. Made of loose ions and electrons, this substance is in a supercharged state beyond gas that occurs when matter is heated to extreme temperatures or is plied with a strong electric current.

Although we rarely interact with plasma, we see it all the time. All the stars in the night sky, including the sun, are mostly made of plasma. It even appears occasionally on Earth in the form of bolts of lightning and in neon signs.

In comparison to gas, where individual particles chaotically zoom about, plasma can act collectively, like a team. It both conducts electricity and is influenced by electromagnetic fields, which operate under the very same force that keeps magnets on your fridge. These fields can control the movements of charged particles in plasma and create waves that accelerate the particles to immense speeds.

Space is brimming with such invisible magnetic fields that shape the paths of plasma. Around Earth, the same magnetic field that makes compasses point north directs plasma through the space around our planet. On the sun, magnetic fields launch solar flares and direct belches of plasma, known as the solar wind, that travel across the solar system. When the solar wind reaches Earth, it can drive energetic processes, like the auroras and space weather, which, if strong enough, can damage satellites and telecommunications.

Sun blocked by circle with red background and white-orange rays that burst from circle.
ESA/NASA’S SOHO mission captured this coronal mass ejection, a huge outburst of plasma from the solar surface. Image via ESA/ NASA/ SOHO.

Extreme temperatures

From Siberia to the Sahara, Earth experiences an extensive range of temperatures. Records exist as high as 134 F and all the way down to -129 F (57 C to -89 C). But what we consider extreme on Earth is average in space. On planets without an insulating atmosphere, temperatures wildly fluctuate between day and night. Mercury regularly sees days around 840 F (449 C) and and frigid nights as low as -275 F (-171 C). And in space itself, some spacecraft experience temperature differences of 60 F (33 C) just between their sunlit and shady sides. That would be like having a glass of water in the shade freeze on a hot summer day! NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, at closest approach to the sun, will experience differences over 2,000 degrees.

The satellites and instruments NASA sends into space are carefully designed to withstand these extremes. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory spends the vast majority of its time in direct sunlight, but a few times a year, its orbit passes into Earth’s shadow. During this cosmic conjunction, otherwise known as an eclipse, the temperature of the sun-facing solar panels drops by 317 F (158 C). Onboard heaters, however, turn on to keep the electronics and instruments safe by permitting only a half a degree dip.

Similarly, engineers build astronaut suits to withstand temperatures from -250 F to 250 F (-157 C to 121 C). The suits are white to reflect light while in the sunshine, and heaters throughout the inside keep astronauts warm in the dark. The design also provides consistent pressure and oxygen, and resists damage from micrometeorites and the sun’s ultraviolet radiation.

Spacecraft swinging around orange sun.
An animation of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe passing near the sun. As Parker whips around the sun, it rotates to keep temperature-sensitive instruments behind a 4.5-inch thick carbon-composite shield that withstands temperatures approaching 2,500 F (1,371 C). In the shade of the shield, the rest of the instrument will stay near room temperature. Image via NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ Scientific Visualization Studio.

Cosmic alchemy

Right now, the sun is squeezing hydrogen into helium at its core. The process of joining atoms together under immense pressure and temperature – forging new elements – is fusion.

When the universe was born, it contained mostly hydrogen and helium, plus a dash of a couple of other light elements. Fusion in stars and supernovas have since furnished the cosmos with more than 80 other elements, some of which make life possible.

The sun and other stars are excellent fusion machines. Every second, the sun fuses about 600 million metric tons of hydrogen: That’s the mass of the Great Pyramid of Giza 102 times!

Along with the creation of new elements, fusion releases enormous amounts of energy and particles of light called photons. These photons take some 250,000 years to bump their way up the 434,000 miles (about 700,000 km) to reach the sun’s visible surface from the solar core. After that, the light only takes eight minutes to travel the 93 million miles (150 million km) to Earth.

Scientists first demonstrated fission, the opposite nuclear reaction that splits heavy elements into smaller ones, in laboratories in the 1930s. Today it’s used in nuclear power plants. The energy released in fission can create a cataclysmic bang. But for a given amount of mass, it’s still several times less than the energy created from fusion. However, scientists have not yet figured out how to control the plasma in a way to produce power from fusion reactions.

Two white-hot circles swirl around and merge.
In the process of fusion, immense pressure and temperature squeeze light elements together into new heavier elements. Image via NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ CILab.

Magnetic explosions

Every day, the space around Earth booms with giant explosions. When the solar wind, the stream of charged particles from the sun, pushes against the magnetic environment that surrounds and protects Earth – the magnetosphere – it tangles the sun and Earth’s magnetic fields. Eventually the magnetic field lines snap and realign, shooting away nearby charged particles. This explosive event is magnetic reconnection.

While we can’t see magnetic reconnection with our bare eyes, we can see its effects. Occasionally some of the perturbed particles pour into Earth’s upper atmosphere, where they spark the auroras.

Magnetic reconnection happens all across the universe wherever there are twisting magnetic fields. NASA missions like the Magnetospheric Multiscale mission measure reconnection events around Earth, which helps scientists understand reconnection where it’s harder to study, like in flares on the sun, in areas surrounding black holes and around other stars.

Earth with lines of magnetic field around it and explosion bouncing off lines.
Huge, invisible explosions are constantly occurring in the space around Earth. These explosions are the result of twisted magnetic field lines that snap and realign, shooting particles across space. Image via NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ CILab.

Supersonic shocks

On Earth, an easy way to transfer energy is to give something a push. This often happens through collisions, like when the wind causes trees to sway. But in outer space, particles can transfer energy without even touching. This strange transfer takes place in invisible structures known as shocks.

In shocks, energy is transferred through plasma waves and electric and magnetic fields. Imagine the particles as a flock of birds flying together. If a tailwind picks up and pushes the birds along, they fly faster even though it doesn’t look like anything is propelling them forward. Particles behave much the same way when they suddenly encounter a magnetic field. The magnetic field can essentially give them a boost forward.

Shock waves form when things move at supersonic speeds, faster than the speed of sound, that is. If a supersonic flow encounters a stationary object, it forms a bow shock, not unlike the bow wave that’s created at the bow of a boat anchored in a swift stream. The solar wind creates a bow shock when it plows into Earth’s magnetic field.

Shocks show up elsewhere in space, like around active supernovas ejecting clouds of plasma. In rare cases, Earth can have temporary shocks, such as when bullets and planes travel faster than the speed of sound.

Electric and magnetic fields can add and remove energy from particles, changing their speeds.
Video via NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio.

All five of these strange phenomena are common in space. Although some can be reproduced in special laboratory situations, they mostly can’t be found under normal circumstances here on Earth. NASA studies these weird things in space so scientists can analyze their properties, providing insight on the complex physics that underlies the workings of our universe.

Bottom line: Here are five weird things that happen in outer space: the state of plasma, extreme temperatures, cosmic alchemy, magnetic explosions and supersonic shocks.

December 16, 2021

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