About This Guide

This Guide is intended for anyone who wonders how our Universe really works, and who might be interested in an intriguing and somewhat different point of view.

  • Is the Universe now expanding faster and faster as science magazines tell us?

  • Does gravity alone, the weaker of the two long-range forces and the centerpiece of the Standard Model in astrophysics, rule the heavens?

A small star grouping, NGC 265,

in the Small Magellanic Cloud, near our Milky Way galaxy.

Image credit: European Space Agency and NASA/Hubble

Readers may be surprised to discover that many well-trained skeptics do not support popular ideas in astronomy and the space sciences.


Critics doubt that "black holes" actually exist. They suggest that "dark matter," supposedly far more abundant than visible matter, is a mere fiction, hiding the fact that earlier theories no longer work.


Theories of galaxy formation, the birth of stars, and the evolution of our planetary system are all raised to doubt by critics who believe that a fateful turn in 20th century theory set astronomy on a dead-end course.

Enchanted by the role of gravity in the cosmos, astronomers failed to recognize the pervasive role of charged particles and electric currents in space.


The purpose of this Guide is to clarify a new vantage point, one that acknowledges the contribution of the electric force to the dynamic structure and highest energy events in the universe.


As we compare events in space to the behavior of charged particles in the laboratory, the differences between an electric model and the traditional gravity-only model should become progressively more clear.

The purpose of this Guide is to introduce and clarify the roles of plasma and electricity in space. It will describe what produces the unique behavior of plasma, and how electricity contributes to the complex and dynamic structure of the universe.


It describes a work still in the early stages of progress, with its interpretation of observations in space, near and far, much more inclusive of the electric and plasma physics contributions than customarily found in writing on this subject.

We offer the Essential Guide to scientists and to the interested lay reader. For those who like to delve into technical details, links to more in-depth material are included, and will be expanded over time.

We will release the preliminary version of this Guide on the Thunderbolts.info site one chapter at a time.


The document will continue to evolve, perhaps for years to come, and we invite contributions from specialists in the scientific studies covered. Given the explosion of data from space, no one working alone can keep up with current findings.


For this reason, interdisciplinary collaboration will be a key to the success of this endeavor.




As work on this Guide proceeds, the number of individuals deserving special acknowledgement will grow.


But we will always owe a special debt of gratitude to Bob Johnson, whose initial script developed over several months gave us a solid foundation on which to build this project.

Jim Johnson, an architect by training, well-versed in the principles of the Electric Universe, will serve as Managing Editor and webmaster.

The multi-talented Dave Smith will serve as advisor on webmaster issues and as a key liaison to scientists and to undergraduate and graduate students desiring to know more or to actively participate.

Also warranting mention are two individuals who, during the formative phase of this project, invested substantial time in identifying key questions and answers. The contributions of Michael Gmirkin and Chris Reeve, though exceeding the present scope of the Guide, have helped to pave the way for what will come, including systematic answers to common misconceptions.

We are pleased to add to this list two assistant editors, Kim Gifford and Mary-Sue Halliburton. Both have followed discussion of the Electric Universe over several years and have shown the requisite editorial skills this Guide will require.

And finally, a thank you to our readers. Our first priority will always be on tending to needed clarifications or corrections in the published portions of the Guide.


On such matters, our readers are often the first to help.

David Talbott
The Thunderbolts Project

Back to Contents


September 2, 2011


The New Picture of Space

Now more than ever, the exploration of our starry Universe excites the imagination. Never before has space presented so many pathways for research and discovery.

New observational tools enable us to "see" formerly-invisible portions of the electromagnetic spectrum, and the view is spectacular. Telescope images in X-ray, radio, infrared and ultraviolet light reveal exotic structure and intensely energetic events that continually redefine the quest as a whole.

Spectrographic interpretation has grown hand-in-hand with faster, large-memory computers and programs, in sophistication and in broad scientific data processing, imaging and modeling capability.

Standing out amidst an avalanche of new images is the greatest surprise of the space age: evidence for pervasive electric currents and magnetic fields across the universe, all connecting and animating what once appeared as isolated islands in space.


The intricate details revealed are not random, but exhibit the unique behavior of charged particles in plasma under the influence of electric currents.

The telltale result is a complex of magnetic fields and associated electromagnetic radiation. We see the effects on and above the surface of the Sun, in the solar wind, in plasma structures around planets and moons, in the exquisite structure of nebulas, in the high-energy jets of galaxies, and across the unfathomable distances between galaxies.

Thanks to the technology of the 20th century, astronomers of the 21st century will confront an extraordinary possibility. The evidence suggests that intergalactic currents, originating far beyond the boundaries of galaxies themselves, directly affect galactic evolution.


The observed fine filaments and electromagnetic radiation in intergalactic and interstellar plasma are the signature of electric currents. Even the power lighting the galaxies' constituent stars may indeed be found in electric currents winding through galactic space.


In a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME),

charged particles are explosively accelerated away

from the Sun in streaming filaments, defying the Sun's immense gravity.

Electric fields accelerate charged particles,

and nothing else known to science can achieve the same effect.

If the Sun is the center of an electric field,

how many other enigmatic features of this body will find direct explanation?


It was long thought that only gravity could do "work" or act effectively across cosmic distances. But perspectives in astronomy are rapidly changing. Specialists trained in the physics of electricity and magnetism have developed new insights into the forces active in the cosmos.


A plausible conclusion emerges. Not gravity alone, but electricity and gravity have shaped and continue to shape the universe we now observe.



A Little History

The early theoretical foundation for modern astronomy was laid by the work of Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton in the 17th and 18th centuries.


Since 1687 when Newton first explained the movement of the planets with his Law of Gravity, science has relied on gravity to explain all large scale events, such as the formation of stars and galaxies, or the births of planetary systems.

This foundation rested on the observed role of gravity in our solar system.


Research into the nature and potential of electricity had not yet begun.


Franklin's experiments with electricity occurred

after the directions of gravity-only astronomy were already well-established.

Credit: Photo courtesy of the Benjamin Franklin Tercenary

Then, in the 19th Century, research pioneers, whose very names crackle with electricity:

  • Alessandro Volta (1745-1827)

  • André Ampčre (1775-1836)

  • Michael Faraday (1791-1867)

  • Joseph Henry (1797-1878)

  • James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)

  • John H. Poynting (1852-1914),

...began to empirically verify the "laws" governing magnetism and electrodynamic behavior, and developed useful equations describing them.

By the start of the 20th Century a Norwegian researcher, Kristian Birkeland (1867-1917), was exploring the relationship between the aurora borealis and the magnetic fields he was able to measure on the Earth below them.


He deduced that flows of electrons from the Sun were the source of the "Northern Lights" - a conclusion confirmed in detail by modern research. It would be at least another seventy years before the phrase "Birkeland currents" began to enter the astronomers' lexicon.

Subsequent work by other scientists,

  • James Jeans (1877-1946)

  • Nobel Laureate Irving Langmuir (1881-1957)

  • Willard Bennett (1903-1987)

  • Nobel Laureate Hannes Alfvén (1908-1995), author of Cosmic Plasma,

...continued to extend our understanding of ionized matter (plasma, the fourth state of matter).

In the latter half of the 20th Century, Alfvén's close colleague Anthony Peratt published a groundbreaking textbook on space plasma, Physics of the Plasma Universe, the culmination of his hands-on, high-energy plasma experiments and supercomputer particle-in-cell plasma simulations at the Department of Energy's Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, USA.


The book has continued to serve as a guide to specialists in the field.

A new tone in astronomy occurred as engineers pointed radio telescopes to the sky and began to detect something astronomers had not expected - radio waves from energetic events in the "emptiness" of space.


At the Second IEEE International Workshop on Plasma Astrophysics and Cosmology, 1993, Kevin Healy of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) presented a paper, A Window on the Plasma Universe: The Very Large Array, (VLA) in which he concluded,

"With the continuing emergence of serious difficulties in the "standard models" of astrophysics [and] the rise of the importance of plasma physics in the description of many astrophysical systems, the VLA (Very Large Array) is a perfect instrument to provide the observational support for laboratory, simulation, and theoretical work in plasma physics.


Its unprecedented flexibility and sensitivity provide a wealth of information on any radio emitting region of the universe."

Active galaxy 3C31 (circled at center)

is dwarfed by the plasma jets along its polar axis,

moving at velocities a large fraction of the speed of light.

How might the electrical potential along the immense volume

of this active region affect the evolution of this galaxy and its billions of stars?

Credit: NRAO's Very Large Array, and Patrick Leahy's Atlas of DRAGNs

At the start of the 21st Century, Wallace Thornhill and David Talbott wrote their collaborative book, The Electric Universe, and electrical engineer and professor Donald E. Scott authored The Electric Sky.


Together these works provide the first general introduction to a new understanding of electric currents and magnetic fields in space.

Leading the way in technical publication has been the Nuclear and Plasma Sciences Society, a division of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). This professional organization is one of the world's largest publishers of scientific and technical literature.

Standing on the shoulders of the electrical pioneers, Carl Fälthammar, Gerrit Verschuur, Per Carlqvist, Göran Marklund and many others continue to extend groundbreaking plasma research to this day.



The Limits of Gravitational Theory

The Law of Gravity, which relies exclusively on the masses of celestial bodies and the distances between them, works very well for explaining planetary and satellite motions within our solar system.


But when astronomers tried to apply it to galaxies and clusters of galaxies, it turns out that nearly 90% of the mass necessary to account for the observed motion is missing.

The trouble began in 1933 when astronomer Fritz Zwicky calculated the mass-to-light ratio for 8 galaxies in the Coma Cluster of the Coma Berenices ("Berenices's hair") constellation.


At the time, it was assumed that the amount of visible light coming from stars should be proportional to their masses (a concept called "visual equilibrium").


As Zwicky was to realize, the apparent rapid velocities of the galaxies, around their common center of mass ("barycenter"), suggested that much more mass than could be seen was required to keep the galaxies from flying out of the cluster.

Zwicky concluded that the missing mass must therefore be invisible or "dark". Other astronomers, such as Sinclair Smith (who performed calculations on the Virgo Cluster in 1936) began to find similar problems.


To make matters worse, in the 1970s, radial velocity plots (radius from the center versus stars' speed of rotation) for stars in the Milky Way galaxy revealed that the speeds flatten out rather than trail down, implying that velocity continues to increase with radius, contrary to what Newton's Law of Gravity predicts for, and which is observed in, the Solar System.

In short, astronomers using the Gravity Model were forced to add a lot more mass to every galaxy than can be detected at any wavelength.


They called this extra matter "dark"; its existence can only be inferred from the failure of predictions. To cover for the insufficiency they gave themselves a blank check, a license to place this imagined stuff wherever needed to make the gravitational model work.

Other mathematical conjectures followed. Assumptions about the redshift of objects in space led to the conclusion that the universe is expanding. Then other speculations led to the notion that the expansion is accelerating.


Faced with an untenable situation, astronomers postulated a completely new kind of matter, an invisible "something" that repels rather than attracts.


Since Einstein equated mass with energy (E = mc˛), this new kind of matter was interpreted as being of a form of mass that acts like pure energy - regardless of the fact that if the matter has no mass it can have no energy according to the equation. Astronomers called it "dark energy", assigning to it an ability to overcome the very gravity on which the entire theoretical edifice rested.

Dark energy is thought to be something like an electrical field, with one difference.


Electric fields are detectable in two ways: when they accelerate electrons, which emit observable photons as synchrotron and Bremsstrahlung radiation, and by accelerating charged particles as electric currents which are accompanied by magnetic fields, detected through Faraday rotation of polarized light.


Dark energy seems to emit nothing and nothing it purportedly does is revealed through a magnetic field. One suggestion is that some property of empty space is responsible. But empty space, by definition, contains no matter and therefore has no energy.


The concept of dark energy is philosophically unsound and is a poignant reminder that the gravity-only model never came close to the original expectations for it.


This artistic view of the standard model of the Big Bang

and the expanding Universe seems

to present a precise picture of cosmic history.

A much different story emerges as we learn

about plasma phenomena and electric currents in space.


Taking the postulated dark matter and dark energy together, something on the order of twenty-four times as much mass in the form of invisible stuff would have to be added to the visible, detectable mass of the Universe.


That's to say, in the Gravity Model all the stars and all the galaxies and all the matter between the stars that we can detect only amount to a minuscule 4% of the estimated mass:


Chandra X-ray Observatory

estimates of the "total energy content of the Universe".

Only "normal" matter can be directly detected with telescopes.

The remaining "dark" matter and energy are invisible.

Image Credit: NASA WMAP

Critics often point out that a theory requiring speculative, undetectable stuff on such a scale also stretches credulity to the breaking point. Something very real, perhaps even obvious, is almost certainly missing in the standard Gravity Model.

Is it possible that the missing component could be something as familiar to the modern world as electricity?


Back to Contents


Chapter 1 - Distances in Space
September 2, 2011



1.1 Distances to Stars

When we look up into the night sky and see all the stars, many of which are suns similar to our own, they look fairly close together. But they're not really close at all. The extent of space between them is huge.

Distance is an important and difficult quantity to measure in astronomy.


We have to know how close we are to the stars and galaxies because much else in astronomy depends directly on that specific information - the total energy (luminosity) emitted, masses from orbital motions, stars' true motions through space, and their true physical sizes.


Starburst cluster

photo courtesy NASA/Hubble Space Telescope

Stars are so far away that even in telescopes they are only tiny points of light.


Without a knowledge of the distance, you cannot accurately know whether you are looking at a small but very bright star or at a larger but less bright star, or whether this star or that is closer to us. This is also true of galaxies, quasars, jets and other distant phenomena.

The distance between our eyes provides us our depth perception. Each eye must be held at a specific angle to center a subject.


The brain interprets those angles and adjusts the eye's focus, giving us a feel for how close the subject is and creating an in-depth image of the world around us. This biological angular detection is the basis of a distance calculation method called parallax in astronomy.

Triangulation, or trigonometric parallax, is a direct way of using the measured angular difference from two positions to measure the distance to some object.


By observing a star's position relative to the background stars from opposite sides of our orbit about the Sun, we have a wide baseline that will allow us to get an angular difference from observations 6 months apart and be able to measure the distance to something as far away as a star.


Trigonometric parallax diagram

courtesy Australian Telescope Outreach and Education website

The Earth averages about 93 million miles from the Sun, so that is its nearly-circular orbit's radius.


This distance is often called an astronomical unit (AU) in astronomy. So the distance from one side of the Earth's orbit to the opposite side is 2 AU, or about 186 million miles.


When we measure the angle to the nearest star (Alpha Centauri) from one side of the orbit, wait six months, and measure it again, we find that the angular difference is rather small, requiring enormous precision of measurement. More on parallax and distance calculations here and here.

The European Space Agency (ESA) launched its automated Hipparcos satellite telescope to take measurements of over 118,000 stars during its lifetime from 1989–1993. Mission: improve the precision of catalogued locations of many stars and update the Tycho and Tycho 2 catalogs.


Out of the newly measured parallaxes, 20,870 stars met the criterion of having a stellar parallax error of 10% or less.


HIPPARCOS satellite parallax error plot by Ralph Biggins,

from ESA/HIPPARCOS catalog data.

Note increasing percent error bounds

(vertically expanding wedge) with increasing distance

Even with the more accurate Hipparcos satellite data, distance measurements to stars out to around 200-220 light-years have up to 10% error, and they are increasingly less accurate out to about 500 light-years.


Beyond that, trigonometric parallax measurements should not be considered reliable. Pogge, in the link above to his Lecture 5, claims Hipparcos data give "good distances out to 1000 light-years", yet an estimated distance of only 500 light years with ±20%–30% error is already off by too much to be of much use.


1000 light-years is an almost incomprehensible distance, yet it is only about 1% of the way across our Milky Way galaxy.

An angle of one degree is subdivided into 60 minutes (60′) of arc, like the convention of dividing an hour into 60 minutes of time. Similarly each minute of arc can be subdivided into 60 seconds (60″) of arc.


The parallax to all stars except our Sun is less than one arc second. In fact, the parallax to Alpha Centauri is about 0.75 of an arc second, or about 0.0002 degree. The parallax angle to all other stars is even less than this small value.

One light-year, the distance light travels in vacuum in one year, is almost 6 trillion miles. If you divide 3.26 by the parallax to a star in arc seconds, you will get the distance to the star as measured in light-years.


Astronomers generally prefer parsecs (pc) rather than light-years as distance measurements, even though parallax measurements can only be used to determine distance accurately a relatively short distance from our Sun.

Example: (3.26 / 0.75 arc-second) = 4.36 light-years (ly), which is,

25.65 trillion miles or 1.33 parsecs to the nearest star.

Let's start closer to home.



1.2 Modeling Distances In and Near Our Solar System

Robert Burnham developed a model to show us in ordinary terms how much space there is out there between the stars. To understand its scale we need to know a couple of real distances.

As noted above, the distance from the Earth to the Sun is around 92,960,000 miles (149,605,000 km). Usually rounded off to 93 million miles (150 million km), this distance is called the Astronomical Unit (AU).

A light-year (ly) is equal to 63,294 AU.


Coincidentally, this is about the same number as the number of inches in a statute mile, 63,360. Therefore, there is around the same number of inches in 1 AU (63,360 x 92,960,000) as the number of miles in 1 light-year (63,294 x 92,960,000). Those are really big numbers. Let's stick to inches.

Burnham set the scale in his model so that 1 inch (1″) equals 1 AU or 93 million miles. Then 1 mile in our model would equal 1 ly. This scale would be expressed as 1:6,000,000,000,000. That's one unit represents six million million units, which is a scale of one to 6 trillion or 1:6×1012.

Let's start describing a Burnhamesque miniature scale model of our solar system using this scale.


We know the distance from Earth to the Sun (1 AU) will be one inch. How big will the Sun be? The Sun's diameter is about 870,000 miles, so in our scale model the Sun will be a little under 1/100th of an inch across. That's a very tiny speck.


The Earth will be one inch away from the Sun but so small (0.00009″, or 9 one hundred thousandths of an inch) that we would not be able to see it without a microscope.


The inner solar system,

non-scaled artist's image

Pluto's orbital radius is 39.5 times larger than Earth's, so Pluto will be 39.5 inches, or almost exactly 1 meter, from the Sun. The heliosphere, the region around the Sun which the solar wind permeates, is about 7 feet in our model.

So where is the nearest star in our model? Our nearest neighbor is Alpha Centauri, which is over 4 light-years away. That's more than 4 miles in our model.

Yes, 4 miles. Our model Sun is one tiny speck, and it's 4 miles to the next nearest speck. That's a lot of space in between. So how big is our galaxy in this tiny model?


The model galaxy would stretch 100,000 miles across. The thin disk and spiral arms would be a thousand miles thick. Its central bulge of stars would be well over 6000 miles from top to bottom. Our galaxy is but one of hundreds of billions of galaxies visible in the observable Universe with our present instruments.


The nighttime sky appears to be crowded with stars, but stars are separated typically by over 10 million times their diameters.



1.3 Distance and Gravity

Remember that, as Newton wrote, the force of gravity decreases with (i.e., is inversely proportional to) the square of the distance between two objects.


So the gravitational attraction between two specks 4 miles apart isn't all that strong. Nor is the force of gravity between two stars 4 light-years apart. Let's use Newton's equation to work out what it actually is.

In the simple equation below, above the worksheet, F is the force in Newtons, G is a very small number called the Gravitational Constant, M1 and M2 are the estimated masses of the two stars in kilograms, and r is the distance between their centers in meters.


Astronomers use the metric or S.I. system as it is much more widely used and more convenient than the traditional Imperial system of inches, feet, miles, pounds and ounces.


However, the result of the calculation is presented at the bottom of the image in terms of the force of gravity at Earth's surface, called a "gee" (for "gravity") regardless of your measurement system.

F = G × (M1 × M2) ÷ r˛


Gravity force calculation

exerted on the Sun by Alpha Centauri

Despite their great mass, the two stars exert only a miniscule gravitational acceleration on each other.


Whatever forces control the behavior of the matter in the universe must be strong enough and must be able to operate effectively enough over the immense distances involved.

Newton's law of gravity has done well enough in explaining the forces of attraction and orbital motions within the limited area of the solar system.


But the relatively weak force of gravity could only operate effectively, if at all, over interstellar distances if it were true that space is empty and there were no competing forces which might overcome that of gravity.


Back to Contents

Chapter 2 - Magnetic and Electric Fields in Space
October 17, 2011


2.1 The Strength of Gravity and Electric Forces

Gravity is a relatively very weak force.


The electric Coulomb force between a proton and an electron is of the order of 1039 (that's 1 with 39 zeros after it) times stronger than the gravitational force between them.


The four fundamental interactions (forces) in physics


We can get a hint of the relative strength of electromagnetic forces when we use a small magnet to pick up an iron object, say, a ball bearing.


Even though the whole of Earth's gravitation attraction is acting upon the ball bearing, the magnet overcomes this easily when close enough to the ball bearing. In space, gravity only becomes significant in those places where the electromagnetic forces are shielded or neutralized.


Small magnet attracts and holds a ball bearing

against Earth gravity's pull.

For spherical masses and charges, both the gravity force and the electric Coulomb force vary inversely with the square of the distance and so decrease rapidly with distance. For other geometries/configurations, the forces decrease more slowly with distance.


For example, the force between two relatively long and thin electric currents moving parallel to each other varies inversely with the first power of the distance between them.

Electric currents can transport energy over huge distances before using that energy to create some detectable result, just like we use energy from a distant power station to boil a kettle in our kitchen. This means that, over longer distances, electromagnetic forces and electric currents together can be much more effective than either the puny force of gravity or even the stronger electrostatic Coulomb force.

Remember that, just in order to explain the behavior of the matter we can detect, the Gravity Model needs to imagine twenty-four times more matter than we can see, in special locations, and of a special invisible type.


It seems much more reasonable to investigate whether the known physics of electromagnetic forces and electric currents can bring about the observed effects instead of having to invent what may not exist.



2.2 The "Vacuum" of Space

Until about 100 years ago, space was thought to be empty. The words "vacuum" and "emptiness" were interchangeable.


But probes have found that space contains atoms, dust, ions, and electrons. Although the density of matter in space is very low, it is not zero. Therefore, space is not a vacuum in the conventional sense of there being "nothing there at all".


For example, the Solar "wind" is known to be a flow of charged particles coming from the Sun and sweeping round the Earth, ultimately causing visible effects like the Northern (and Southern) Lights.

The dust particles in space are thought to be 2 to 200 nanometers in size, and many of them are also electrically charged, along with the ions and electrons. This mixture of neutral and charged matter is called plasma, and it is suffused with electromagnetic fields.


We will discuss plasma and its unique interactions with electromagnetic fields in more detail in Chapter 3. The "empty" spaces between planets or stars or galaxies are very different from what astronomers assumed in the earlier part of the 20th century.

(Note about terminology in links: astronomers often refer to matter in the plasma state as "gas," "winds," "hot, ionized gas," "clouds," etc.


This fails to distinguish between the two differently-behaving states of matter in space, the first of which is electrically-charged plasma and the other of which may be neutral gas which is just widely-dispersed, non-ionized molecules or atoms.)


Ionized hydrogen (plasma) abundance in a northern sky survey

Image: Wiki Commons

The existence of charged particles and electromagnetic fields in space is accepted in both the Gravity Model and the Electric Model. But the emphasis placed on them and their behavior is one distinctive difference between the models.


We will therefore discuss magnetic fields next.


Aurora, photographed by L. Zimmerman, Fairbanks, Alaska.

Image courtesy spaceweather.com, Aurora PhotoGallery



2.3 Introduction to Magnetic Fields

What do we mean by the terms "magnetic field" and "magnetic field lines"?


In order to understand the concept of a field, let's start with a more familiar example: gravity.

We know that gravity is a force of attraction between bodies or particles having mass. We say that the Earth's gravity is all around us here on the surface of the Earth and that the Earth's gravity extends out into space.


We can express the same idea more economically by saying that the Earth has a gravitational field which extends into space in all directions. In other words, a gravitational field is a region where a gravitational force of attraction will be exerted between bodies with mass.

Similarly, a magnetic field is a region in which a magnetic force would act on a magnetized or charged body. (We will look at the origin of magnetic fields later). The effect of the magnetic force is most obvious on ferromagnetic materials.


For example, iron filings placed on a surface in a magnetic field align themselves in the direction of the field like compass needles.


A bar magnet with iron filings around it,

showing the magnetic field direction

Because the iron filings tend to align themselves south pole to north pole, the pattern they make could be drawn as a series of concentric lines, which would indicate the direction and, indirectly, strength of the field at any point.

Therefore magnetic field lines are one convenient way to represent the direction of the field, and serve as guiding centers for trajectories of charged particles moving in the field (ref. Fundamentals of Plasma Physics, Cambridge University Press, 2006, Paul Bellan, Ph.D.)

It is important to remember that field lines do not exist as physical objects.


Each iron filing in a magnetic field is acting like a compass: you could move it over a bit and it would still point magnetic north-south from its new position. Similarly, a plumb bob (a string with a weight at one end) will indicate the local direction of the gravitational field. Lines drawn longitudinally through a series of plumb bobs would make a set of gravitational field lines.


Such lines do not really exist; they are just a convenient, imaginary means of visualizing or depicting the direction of force applied by the field. See Appendix I for more discussion of this subject, or here, at Fizzics Fizzle.

A field line does not necessarily indicate the direction of the force exerted by whatever is causing the field.


Field lines may be drawn to indicate direction or polarity of a force, or may be drawn as contours of equal intensities of a force, in the same way as contour lines on a map connect points of equal elevation above, say, sea level. Often, around 3-dimensional bodies with magnetic fields, imaginary surfaces are used to represent the area of equal force, instead of lines.

By consensus, the definition of the direction of a magnetic field at some point is from the north to the south pole.

In a gravitational field, one could choose to draw contour lines of equal gravitational force instead of the lines of the direction of the force. These lines of equal gravitational force would vary with height (that is, with distance from the center of the body), rather like contour lines on a map. To find the direction of the force using these elevation contour lines, one would have to work out which way a body would move.


Placed on the side of a hill, a stone rolls downhill, across the contours. In other words the gravitational force is perpendicular to the field lines of equal gravitational force.

Magnetic fields are more complicated than gravity in that they can either attract or repel.


Two permanent bar magnets with their opposite ends (opposite "poles", or N-S) facing each other will attract each other along the direction indicated by the field lines of the combined field from them both (see image above). Magnets with the same polarity (N-N or S-S) repel one another along the same direction.

Magnetic fields also exert forces on charged particles that are in motion.


Because the force that the charged particle experiences is at right angles to both the magnetic field line and the particle's direction, a charged particle moving across a magnetic field is made to change direction (i.e. to accelerate) by the action of the field. Its speed remains unchanged to conserve kinetic energy.


The following image shows what happens to an electron beam in a vacuum tube before and after a magnetic field is applied, in a lab demonstration.


In this demonstration, a vacuum tube accelerates a narrow
beam of electrons (emitting blue light) vertically upward.
Energizing the magnetic field of the coils by passing an
electric current through them forces the electron beam to curve.
Image credit: Clemson University, Physics On-line Labs


The magnetic force on a charged particle in motion is analogous to the gyroscopic force.


A charged particle moving directly along or "with" a magnetic field line won't experience a force trying to change its direction, just as pushing on a spinning gyroscope directly along its axis of rotation will not cause it to turn or "precess".

Even though the force on different charged particles varies, the concept of visualizing the direction of the magnetic field as a set of imaginary field lines is useful because the direction of the force on any one material, such as a moving charged particle, can be worked out from the field direction.


Magnetic field lines superimposed on the Sun

in the vicinity of a coronal hole and other active regions.

Understanding the dynamics of such fields helps to understand

the underlying plasma currents forming them.

Image credit: NASA SDO / Lockheed Martin Space Systems Corp., 10.20.2010



2.4 The Origin of Magnetic Fields

There is only one way that magnetic fields can be generated: by moving electric charges. In permanent magnets, the fields are generated by electrons spinning around the nuclei of the atoms.


A strong magnet is created when all the electrons orbiting the nuclei have spins that are aligned, creating a powerful combined force. If the magnet is heated to its Curie temperature, the thermal motion of the atoms breaks down the orderly spin alignments, greatly reducing the net magnetic field. In a metal wire carrying a current, the magnetic field is generated by electrons moving down the length of the wire.


A more detailed introduction to the complex subject of exchange coupling and ferromagnetism can be found here.

Either way, any time electric charges move, they generate magnetic fields. Without moving electric charges, magnetic fields cannot exist. Ampčre's Law states that a moving charge generates a magnetic field with circular lines of force, on a plane that is perpendicular to the movement of the charge.

Magnetic field lines surround a conductor in concentric, equal valued cylinders or "shells". Note that if you align your right thumb in the direction arrow of the current, your curled fingers show the magnetic field direction. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, captions added

Since electric currents made up of moving electric charges can be invisible and difficult to detect at a distance, detecting a magnetic field at a location in space (by well-known methods in astronomy, see below) is a sure sign that it is accompanied by an electric current.

If a current flows in a conductor, such as a long straight wire or a plasma filament, then each charged particle in the current will have a small magnetic field around it. When all the individual small magnetic fields are added together, the result is a continuous magnetic field around the whole length of the conductor.


The regions in space around the wire where the field strength is equal (called "equipotential surfaces") are cylinders concentric with the wire.


Magnetic field lines surround a conductor in concentric
equal-valued cylinders or "shells". Note that if you align
your right thumb in the direction arrow of the current,
your curled fingers show the magnetic field direction
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, captions added


Time-varying electric and magnetic fields are considered later. (See Chapter IV and Appendix III)

The question of the origin of magnetic fields in space is one of the key differences between the Gravity Model and the Electric Model.

The Gravity Model allows for the existence of magnetic fields in space because they are routinely observed, but they are said to be caused by dynamos inside stars. For most researchers today, neither electric fields nor electric currents in space play any significant part in generating magnetic fields.


In contrast, the Electric Model, as we shall see in more detail later, argues that magnetic fields must be generated by the movement of charged particles in space in the same way that magnetic fields are generated by moving charged particles here on Earth. Of course, the Electric Model accepts that stars and planets have magnetic fields, too, evidenced by magnetospheres and other observations.


The new insight has been to explain a different origin for these magnetic fields in space if they are not created by dynamos in stars.



2.5 Detecting Magnetic Fields in Space

Since the start of the space age, spacecraft have been able to measure magnetic fields in the solar system using instruments on board the spacecraft. We can "see" magnetic fields beyond the range of spacecraft because of the effect that the fields have on light and other radiation passing through them.


We can even estimate the strength of the magnetic fields by measuring the amount of that effect.


                     Optical image                                       Magnetic field intensity, direction

Courtesy Rainer Beck and Bill Sherwood (ret.),

Max Planck Institute für Radio-Astronomie

We have known about the Earth's magnetic field for centuries. We can now detect such fields in space, so the concept of magnetic fields in space is intuitively easy to understand, although astronomers have difficulty in explaining the origination of these magnetic fields.

Magnetic fields can be detected at many wavelengths by observing the amount of symmetrical spectrographic emission line or absorption line splitting that the magnetic field induces.


This is known as the Zeeman effect, after Dutch physicist and 1902 Nobel laureate, Pieter Zeeman, (1865-1943).


Note in the right image above how closely the field direction aligns with the galactic arms visible in the optical image, left.


The Zeeman effect, spectral line broadening or splitting in a magnetic field.

Image credit: www.chemteam.info/classical papers/no.38,1897 - the Zeeman effect.

Original photo by Pieter Zeeman

Another indicator of the presence of magnetic fields is the polarization of synchrotron emission radiated by electrons in magnetic fields, useful at galactic scales.


See Beck's article on Galactic Magnetic Fields, in Scholarpedia, plus Beck and Sherwood's Atlas of Magnetic Fields in Nearby Galaxies. Measurement of the degree of polarization makes use of the Faraday effect. The Faraday rotation in turn leads to the derivation of the strength of the magnetic field through which the polarized light is passing.

The highly instructional paper by Phillip Kronberg et al, Measurement of the Electric Current in a Kpc-Scale Jet, provides a compelling insight into the direct link between the measured Faraday rotation in the powerful "knots" in a large galactic jet, the resultant magnetic field strength, and the electric current present in the jet.

Magnetic fields are included in both the Gravity Model and the Electric Model of the Universe. The essential difference is that the Electric Model recognizes that magnetic fields in space always accompany electric currents.


We will take up electric fields and currents next.



2.6 Introduction to Electric Fields

An electric charge has polarity.


That is, it is either positive or negative. By agreement, the elementary (smallest) unit of charge is equal to that of an electron (-e) or a proton (+e). Electric charge is quantized; it is always an integer multiple of e.

The fundamental unit of charge is the coulomb (C), where e = 1.60×10-19 coulomb. By taking the inverse of the latter tiny value, one coulomb is 6.25×1018 singly-charged particles.


One ampere (A) of electric current is one coulomb per second. A 20A current thus would be 20°C of charge per second, or the passage of 1.25×1020 electrons per second past a fixed point.

Every charge has an electric field associated with it. An electric field is similar to a magnetic field in that it is caused by the fundamental force of electromagnetic interaction and its "range" or extent of influence is infinite, or indefinitely large. The electric field surrounding a single charged particle is spherical, like the gravitational acceleration field around a small point mass or a large spherical mass.


The electric field around a single positive charge (L) and between two charged plates.

Arrows indicate the direction of the force on a positive charge.

Note that the same force would be applied in the opposite direction on a negative charge.

The strength of an electric field at a point is defined as the force in newtons (N) that would be exerted on a positive test charge of 1 coulomb placed at that point. Like gravity, the force from one charge is inversely proportional to the square of the distance to the test (or any other) charge.

The point in defining a test charge as positive is to consistently define the direction of the force due to one charge acting upon another charge.


Since like charges repel and opposites attract, just like magnetic poles, the imaginary electric field lines tend to point away from positive charges and toward negative charges. See a short YouTube video on the electric field here.

Here is a user-controlled demonstration of 2 charges and their associated lines of force in this Mathematica application.

You may need to download Mathematica Player (just once, and it's free) from the linked web site to play with the demo. Click on "Download Live Demo" after you install Mathematica Player. You can adjust strength and polarity of charge (+ or -) with the sliders, and drag the charged particles around the screen. Give the field lines time to smooth out between changes.

Electromagnetic forces are commonly stronger than gravitational forces on plasma in space. Electromagnetism can be shielded, while gravity can not, so far as is known.


The common argument in the standard model is that most of the electrons in one region or body are paired with protons in the nuclei of atoms and molecules, so the net forces of the positive charges and negative charges cancel out so perfectly that "for large bodies gravity can dominate" (link: Wikipedia, Fundamental Interactions, look under the Electromagnetism sub-heading).

What is overlooked above is that, with the occasional exception of relatively cool, stable and near-neutral planetary environments like those found here on Earth, most other matter in the Universe consists of plasma; i.e., charged particles and neutral particles moving in a complex symphony of charge separation and the electric and magnetic fields of their own making. Gravity, while always present, is not typically the dominant force.

Far from consisting of mostly neutralized charge and weak magnetic and electric fields and their associated weak currents, electric fields and currents in plasma can and often do become very large and powerful in space.


The Electric Model holds that phenomena in space such as magnetospheres, Birkeland currents, stars, pulsars, galaxies, galactic and stellar jets, planetary nebulas, "black holes", energetic particles such as gamma rays and X-rays and more, are fundamentally electric events in plasma physics.


Even the rocky bodies - planets, asteroids, moons and comets, and the gas bodies in a solar system - exist in the heliospheres of their stars, and are not exempt from electromagnetic forces and their effects.

Each separate charged particle contributes to the total electric field.


The net force at any point in a complex electromagnetic field can be calculated using vectors, if the charges are assumed stationary. If charged particles are moving (and they always are), however, they "create" - are accompanied by - magnetic fields, too, and this changes the magnetic configuration.


Changes in a magnetic field in turn create electric fields and thereby affect currents themselves, so fields that start with moving particles represent very complex interactions, feedback loops and messy mathematics.

Charges in space may be distributed spatially in any configuration.


If, instead of a point or a sphere, the charges are distributed in a linear fashion so that the length of a charged area is much longer than its width or diameter, it can be shown that the electric field surrounds the linear shape like cylinders of equal force potential, and that the field from this configuration decreases with distance from the configuration as the inverse of the distance (not the inverse square of the distance) from the centerline.


This is important in studying the effects of electric and magnetic fields in filamentary currents such as lightning strokes, a plasma focus, or large Birkeland currents in space.

Remember that the direction of applied force on a positive charge starts from positive charge and terminates on negative charge, or failing a negative charge, extends indefinitely far.


Even a small charge imbalance with, say, more positively-charged particles here and more negatively-charged particles a distance away leads to a region of force or electric field between the areas of separated dissimilar charges. The importance of this arrangement will become more clear in the discussion of double layers in plasma, further on.

Think of an electrical capacitor where there are two separated, oppositely charged plates or layers, similar to the two charged plates "B" in the diagram above.


There will be an electric field between the layers. Any charged particle moving or placed between the layers will be accelerated towards the oppositely charged layer. Electrons (which are negatively charged) accelerate toward the positively charged layer, and positive ions and protons toward the negatively charged layer.


A candle flame in an electric field between two dissimilarly charged plates

will be oriented sideways because a flame is a partially ionized plasma.

It therefore responds more strongly to the electric force between the plates

than to the thermal convective forces in a gravity field

According to Newton's Laws, force results in acceleration.


Therefore electric fields will result in charged particles' acquiring velocity. Oppositely charged particles will move in opposite directions. An electric current is, by definition, movement of charge past a point. Electric fields therefore cause electric currents by giving charged particles a velocity.

If an electric field is strong enough, then charged particles will be accelerated to very high velocities by the field.


For a little further reading on electric fields see this.



2.7 Detecting Electric Fields and Currents in Space

Electric fields and currents are more difficult to detect without putting a measuring instrument directly into the field, but we have detected currents in the solar system using spacecraft.


One of the first was the low-altitude polar orbit TRIAD satellite in the 1970s, which found currents interacting with the Earth's upper atmosphere.


In 1981 Hannes Alfvén described a heliospheric current model in his book, Cosmic Plasma.

Since then, a region of electric current called the heliospheric current sheet (HCS) has been found that separates the positive and negative regions of the Sun's magnetic field. It is tilted approximately 15 degrees to the solar equator. During one half of a solar cycle, outward-pointing magnetic fields lie above the HCS and inward-pointing fields below it.


This is reversed when the Sun's magnetic field reverses its polarity halfway through the solar cycle. As the Sun rotates, the HCS rotates with it, "dragging" its undulations into what NASA terms "the standard Parker spiral".

Some links to heliospheric current sheet sites are Wikipedia, NASA, this Mathematica demonstration, and the Belgian Institute of Aeronomy.


Depiction of the Heliocentric Current Sheet (HCS) around the Sun,

with typical ripples dragged into a spiral configuration.

Credit: Wiki Commons

Spacecraft have measured changes over time in the current sheet at various locations since the 1980s. They have detected near-Earth and solar currents as well. The Gravity Model accepts that these currents exist in space but assumes they are a result of the magnetic field.


We will return to this point later.


A research rocket with SPIRIT II payload containing extendable booms

with Langmuir probes to detect electric fields and ions in near-Earth plasma.

Image credits: NASA Wallops Flight Facility and Penn State University

Electric fields outside the reach of spacecraft are not detectable in precisely the same way as magnetic fields.


Line-splitting or broadening in electric fields occurs, but it is asymmetrical line splitting that indicates the presence of an electric field, in contrast to the symmetric line splitting in magnetic fields.


Further, electric field line broadening is sensitive to the mass of the elements emitting light (the lighter elements being readily broadened or split, and heavier elements less so affected), while Zeeman (magnetic field) broadening is indifferent to mass.


Asymmetric bright-line splitting or broadening is called the Stark effect, after Johannes Stark (1874–1957).


Spectrographic line broadening of helium

increases with the strength of the electric field through which it passes.

Heavier elements exhibit less line splitting than lighter ones.

Image credit: Journal of the Franklin Institute, 1930

Another way in which we can detect electric fields is by inference from the behavior of charged particles, especially those that are accelerated to high velocities, and the existence of electromagnetic radiation such as X-rays in space, which we have long known from Earth-bound experience are generated by strong electric fields.

Electric currents in low density plasmas in space operate like fluorescent lights or evacuated Crookes Tubes.


In a weak current state, the plasma is dark and radiates little visible light (although cold, thin plasma can radiate a lot in the radio and far infrared wavelengths). As current increases, plasma enters a glow mode, radiating a modest amount of electromagnetic energy in the visible spectrum.


This is visible in the image at the end of this chapter. When electrical current becomes very intense in a plasma, the plasma radiates in the arc mode. Other than scale, there is little significant difference between lightning and the radiating surface of a star's photosphere.

This means, of course, that alternative explanations for these effects are also possible, at least in theory.


The Gravity Model often assumes that the weak force of gravity multiplied by supernatural densities that are hypothesized to make up black holes or neutron stars creates these types of effect. Or maybe particles are accelerated to near-light-speed by supernovae explosions.


The question is whether "multiplied gravity" or lab-testable electromagnetism is more consistent with observations that the Universe is composed of plasma.

The Electric Model argues that electrical effects are not just limited to those parts of the solar system that spacecraft have been able to reach. The Electric Model supposes that similar electrical effects also occur outside the solar system.


After all, it would be odd if the solar system was the only place in the Universe where electrical effects do occur in space.




2.8 The Extent of Electromagnetic Fields in Space

In the Gravity Model, only static magnetic fields are thought to have any effect in space.


The Gravity Model adopts the simplifying assumption that electricity plays no significant part in the dynamics of the Universe and that magnetic fields are 'frozen in' to the plasma - an idea repudiated by the Nobel prize winner, Hannes Alfvén, who first proposed it. In the Gravity Model, the force of gravity rules the behavior of the cosmos.

By contrast, in the Electric model, the magnetic fields in space derive from electric currents.


In the Electric Model, the complex interactions among electric currents, magnetic fields, electric fields, and charge separation deeply influence the behavior of matter and energetic events throughout the Universe.


The Veil Nebula, NGC 6960,

with its gauzy, glowing filamentary plasma currents

and current sheets spanning the light years.

Image credit: T.A. Rector, University of Alaska, Anchorage,

and Kitt Peak WIYN 0.9m telescope/NOAO/AURA/NSF


Back to Contents

Chapter 3 - Plasma
October 25, 2011


3.1 Introducing Plasma

It is known that space is filled with plasma. In fact, plasma is the most common type of matter in the universe.


It is found in a wide range of places from fire, neon lights, and lightning on Earth to galactic and intergalactic space. The only reason that we are not more accustomed to plasma is that mankind lives in a thin biosphere largely made up of solids, liquids, and gases to which our senses are tuned. For example, we don't experience fire as a plasma; we see a bright flame and feel heat.


Only scientific experiments can show us that plasma is actually present in the flame.


While plasma studies may focus

on a single subject such as fusion energy production,

the understanding of how the Universe operates

also awaits the student with a wider interest.

Image credit: DOE-Princeton Plasma Physics Lab; Peter Ginter
"Plasma is a collection of charged particles that responds collectively to electromagnetic forces"

(from the first paragraph in Physics of the Plasma Universe, Anthony Peratt, Springer-Verlag, 1992).



A plasma region may also contain a proportion of neutral atoms and molecules, as well as both charged and neutral impurities such as dust, grains and larger bodies from small rocky bodies to large planets and, of course, stars.

The defining characteristic is the presence of the free charges, that is, the ions and electrons and any charged dust particles. Their strong response to electromagnetic fields causes behavior of the plasma which is very different to the behavior of an un-ionized gas.


Of course, all particles - charged and neutral - respond to a gravity field, in proportion to its local intensity. As most of the Universe consists of plasma, locations where gravitational force dominates that of electromagnetism are relatively sparse.

Because of its unique properties, plasma is usually considered to be a phase of matter distinct from solids, liquids, and gases. It is often called the "fourth state of matter" although, as its state is universally the most common, it could be thought of as the "first" state of matter.

The chart below is commonly used to indicate how states change from a thermal point of view.


The higher the temperature, the higher up the energy ladder with transitions upward and downward as indicated. However, it takes a very high thermal energy to ionize matter. There are other means as well, and an ionized state with charge imbalance can be induced and maintained at almost any temperature.

A solid such as a metal electrical cable, once it is connected in an electrical circuit with a sufficiently high electrical voltage source (battery; powerplant) will have its electrons separated from the metal nuclei, to be moved freely along the wire as a current of charged particles.

A beaker of water with a bit of metallic salt, such as sodium chloride, is readily ionized. If an electric voltage is applied via a positive and a negative wire, the hydrogen and oxygen atoms can be driven to the oppositely charged wires and evolve as the gaseous atoms they are at room temperature.


Such stable, neutral states are a part of an electric universe, but this Guide will focus more on investigating the state of plasma and electric currents at larger scales, in space.

A molecular cloud of very cold gas and dust can be ionized by nearby radiating stars or cosmic rays, with the resulting ions and electrons taking on organized plasma characteristics, able to maintain charge and double layers creating charge separation and electrical fields with very large voltage differentials. Such plasma will accelerate charges and conduct them better than metals.


Plasma currents can result in sheets and filamentary forms, two of the many morphologies by which the presence of plasma can be identified.


Four states or phases of matter , and the transitions between them.

Note the similarity to the early Greek "primary elements"

of Earth, water, air and fire.

It is clear that plasma is the state with the highest energy content.

Open question: From where in space does this energy come?

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The proportion of ions is quantified by the degree of ionization. The degree of ionization of a plasma can vary from less than 0.01% up to 100%, but plasma behavior will occur across this entire range due to the presence of the charged particles and the charge separation typical of plasma behavior.

Plasma is sometimes referred to merely as an "ionized gas".


While technically correct, this terminology is incomplete and outdated. It is used to disguise the fact that plasma seldom behaves like a gas at all. In space it does not simply diffuse, but organizes itself into complex forms, and will not respond significantly to gravity unless local electromagnetic forces are much weaker than local gravity.


Plasma is not matter in a gas state; it is matter in a plasma state.

The Sun's ejection of huge masses of "ionized gas" (plasma) as prominences and coronal mass ejections against its own powerful gravity serves to illustrate this succinctly. The solar 'wind' is plasma, and consists of moving charged particles, also known as electric current. It is not a fluid, or a 'wind', or a 'hot gas', to put it in plain terms.


Use of other words from fluid dynamics serves to obfuscate the reality of electric currents and plasma phenomena more powerful than gravity, around us in space, as far away as we can observe.


Do gravitational forces explain how millions of tons of feathery plasma
filaments are accelerated off the Sun's surface and into the solar system?
Credit: far ultraviolet image by NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory




3.2 Ionization

We know that space is filled with fields, a variety of particles, many of which are charged, and collections of particles in size from atoms to planets to stars and galaxies.


Neutral particles - that is, atoms and molecules having the same number of protons as electrons, and neglecting anti-matter in this discussion - can be formed from oppositely charged particles.


Conversely, charged particles may be formed from atoms and molecules by a process known as ionization.

If an electron - one negative charge - is separated from an atom, then the remaining part of the atom is left with a positive charge. The separated electron and the remainder of the atom become free of each other. This process is called ionization. The positively charged remainder of the atom is called an ion.


The simplest atom, hydrogen, consists of one proton (its nucleus) and one electron. If hydrogen is ionized, then the result is one free electron and one free proton. A single proton is the simplest type of ion.

If an atom heavier than hydrogen is ionized, then it can lose one or more electrons.


The positive charge on the ion will be equal to the number of electrons that have been lost. Ionization can also occur with molecules. It can also arise from adding an electron to a neutral atom or molecule, resulting in a negative ion. Dust particles in space are often charged, and the study of the physics of dusty plasmas is a subject of research in many universities today.


Energy is required to separate atoms into electrons and ions - see the chart below.


First ionization energy

versus elements' atomic numbers.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons,

edited to add temperatures along the right axis

Notice the repetitive pattern of the chart: an alkali metal has a relatively low ionization energy or temperature (easy to ionize).


As you move to the right, increasing the atomic number - the number of protons in the nucleus of the atom - the energy required to ionize each 'heavier' atom increases. It peaks at the next "noble gas" atom, followed by a drop at the next higher atomic number, which will be a metal again. Then the pattern repeats.

It is interesting to note that hydrogen, the lightest element, is considered a 'metal' in this electric and chemical context, because it has a single electron which it readily "gives up" in its outer (and only) electron orbital.


Common terminology in astronomy, in the context of the component elements in stars, is that hydrogen and helium are the 'gases' and all the other elements present are collectively termed 'metals'.



3.3 Initiating and Maintaining Ionization

The energy to initiate and maintain ionization can be kinetic energy from collisions between energetic particles (sufficiently high temperature), or from sufficiently intense radiation.


Average random kinetic energy of particles is routinely expressed as temperature, and in some very high velocity applications as electron-volts (eV). To convert temperature in kelvins (K) to eV, divide K by 11604.5. Conversely, multiply a value in eV by that number to get the thermal equivalent temperature in K.

The chart above represents the ionization energy required to strip the first, outermost electron from an atom or molecule.


Subsequent electrons are more tightly bound to the nucleus and their ionization requires even higher energies. Several levels of electrons may be stripped from atoms in extremely energetic environments like those found in and near stars and galactic jets.


Importance: These energetic plasmas are important sources of electrons and ions which can be accelerated to extremely high velocities, sources of cosmic rays and synchrotron radiation at many wavelengths. Cosmic ray links to cloud cover patterns affecting our global climate are reported in Henrik Svensmark's book, The Chilling Stars.

Temperature is a measure of how much random kinetic energy the particles have, which is related to the rate of particle collisions and how fast they are moving. The temperature affects the degree of plasma ionization.


Electric fields aligned (parallel) with local magnetic fields ("force-free" condition) can form in plasma. Particles accelerated in field-aligned conditions tend to move in parallel, not randomly, and consequently undergo relatively few collisions. The conversion of particle trajectories from random to parallel is called "dethermalization".


They are said to have a lower "temperature" as a result. Analogy: think of the vehicular motion in a "destruction derby" as "hot", collision-prone random traffic, and freeway vehicular movement in lanes as "cool", low-collision, parallel aligned traffic.

In a collision between an electron and an atom, ionization will occur if the energy of the electron (the electron temperature) is greater than the ionization energy of the atom. Equally, if an electron collides with an ion, it will not recombine if the electron has enough energy.


One can visualize this as the electron's having a velocity greater than the escape velocity of the ion, so it is not captured in an orbit around the ion.

Electron temperatures in space plasmas can be in the range of hundreds to millions of kelvins. Plasmas can therefore be effective at maintaining their ionized state. A charge-separated state is normal in space plasmas.


Other sources of ionization energy include high-energy cosmic rays arriving from other regions, and high-energy or "ionizing" radiation such as intense ultraviolet light incident upon the plasma from nearby stars or energetic radiative processes created within the plasma itself.


Highly energetic processes are observed in nebula NGC 3603:

blue supergiant Sher 25 with toroidal ring and bipolar jets, upper center;

arc and glow mode plasma discharges as emission nebula (yellow-white areas);

clustered hot blue Wolf-Rayet and young O-type stars,

with electric filaments and sheets throughout the dusty plasma regions of the nebula.

Image credit: W. Brandner (JPL/IPAC), E. Grebel (U. of Washington),

You-Hua Chou (U. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign),

and NASA Hubble Space Telescope

In Big Bang cosmology, it is thought that there is not enough energy in the Universe to have created and maintained significant numbers of "loose" ions and electrons through ionization, and therefore they cannot exist.


On the other hand, whenever ions and electrons combine into atoms, energy is given off. In the Big Bang Model, protons and electrons are thought to have been created before atoms, so an enormous amount of energy must have been released during the formation of the atoms in the Universe.


It seems possible that if the Big Bang Model is correct, then this energy would still be available to re-ionize large numbers of atoms. Alternatively, it seems possible that not all protons and electrons combined into atoms after the Big Bang.

Note that the Electric Model does not rely on the Big Bang Model.


The Electric Model simply says that we detect ions and electrons everywhere we have looked; so they do exist, probably in large numbers. Telescopes which "see" in high energy photons, such as Chandra (X-ray) and EIT, Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope on the SOHO solar observation spacecraft, attest to the presence of ionizing energy sources in the Universe, near and far.


To suggest that mobile ions and electrons can't exist in large numbers because, theoretically, there isn't enough energy to have created them is as erroneous as arguing that the Universe can't exist for the same reason.



3.4 Plasma Research


Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland (1867-1917)

with his Terella ("Little Earth),

an evacuated electromagnetic plasma simulator,

circa 1904

Although plasma may not be common in Earth's biosphere, it is seen in lightning in its many forms, the northern and southern auroras, sparks of static electricity, spark plug igniters, flames of all sorts (see Chapter 2, ¶2.6), in vacuum tubes (valves), in electric arc welding, electric arc furnaces, electric discharge machining, plasma torches for toxic waste disposal, and neon and other fluorescent lighting tubes and bulbs.

Plasma behavior has been studied extensively in laboratory experiments for over 100 years.


There is a large body of published research on plasma behavior by various laboratories and professional organizations, including the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), which is the largest technical professional organization in the world today.


The IEEE publishes a journal, Transactions on Plasma Science.

We will be relying on much of this research when explaining plasma behavior in the rest of this Guide. One point to bear in mind is that plasma behavior has been shown to be scalable over many orders of magnitude.


That is, we can test small-scale examples of plasma in the laboratory and know that the observable results can be scaled up to the dimensions necessary to explain plasma behavior in space.


Experimental plasma vacuum chamber

in Dr. Paul Bellan's Plasma Physics Group lab

at the California Institute of Technology, USA; circa 2008.

Image credit: Cal Tech



3.5 Plasma and Gases

Due to the presence of its charged particles, that is, ions, electrons, and charged dust particles, cosmic plasma behaves in a fundamentally different way from a neutral gas in the presence of electromagnetic fields.

Electromagnetic forces will cause charged particles to move differently from neutral atoms. Complex behavior of the plasma can result from collective movements of this kind.

A significant behavioral characteristic is plasma's ability to form large-scale cells and filaments. In fact, that is why plasma is so named, due to its almost life-like behavior and similarities to cell-containing blood plasma.

The cellularization of plasma makes it difficult to model accurately.


The use of the term 'ionized gas' is misleading because it suggests that plasma behavior can be modeled in terms of gas behavior, or fluid dynamics. It cannot except in certain simple conditions.

Alfvén and Arrhenius in 1973 wrote in Evolution of the Solar System:

"The basic difference [of approaches to modeling] is to some extent illustrated by the terms ionized gas and plasma which, although in reality synonymous, convey different general notions.


The first term gives an impression of a medium that is basically similar to a gas, especially the atmospheric gas we are most familiar with. In contrast to this, a plasma, particularly a fully ionized magnetized plasma, is a medium with basically different properties."


3.6 Conduction of electricity

Plasma contains dissociated charged particles which can move freely.


Remembering that, by definition, moving charges constitute a current, we can see that plasma can conduct electricity. In fact, as plasma contains both free ions and free electrons, electricity can be conducted by either or both types of charge.

By comparison, conduction in a metal is entirely due to the movement of free electrons because the ions are bound into the crystal lattice. This means plasma is an even more efficient conductor than metals, as both the electrons and their corresponding ions are considered free to move under applied forces.

The efficiency of plasma conduction in compact fluorescent lights has rapidly replaced most metal filament (resistance heating) light sources



3.7 Electrical Resistance of Plasmas

In the Gravity Model, plasma is often assumed for simplicity to be a perfect conductor with zero resistance.


However, all plasmas have a small but nonzero resistance. This is fundamental to a complete understanding of electricity in space. Because plasma has a small nonzero resistance, it is able to support weak electric fields without short-circuiting.

The electrical conductivity of a material is determined by two factors: the density of the population of available charge carriers (the ions and electrons) in the material and the mobility (freedom of movement) of these carriers.

In space plasma, the mobility of the charge carriers is extremely high because, due to the very low overall particle density and generally low ion temperatures, they experience very few collisions with other particles.


On the other hand, the density of available charge carriers is also very low, which limits the capacity of the plasma to carry the current.

Electrical resistance in plasma, which depends on the inverse of the product of the charge mobility and the charge density, therefore has a small but nonzero value.

Because a magnetic field forces charged particles moving across the field to change direction, the resistance across a magnetic field is effectively much higher than the resistance in the direction of the magnetic field. This becomes important when looking at the behavior of electric currents in plasma.

Although plasma is a very good conductor, it is not a perfect conductor, or superconductor.



3.8 Creation of Charge Differences

Over a large enough volume, plasma tends to have the same number of positive and negative charges because any charge imbalance is readily neutralized by the movement of the high-energy electrons.


So the question arises, how can differently charged regions exist, if plasma is such a good conductor and tends to neutralize itself quickly?

On a small scale, of the order of tens of meters in a space plasma, natural variations will occur as a result of random variations in electron movements, and these will produce small adjacent regions where neutrality is temporarily violated.

On a larger scale, positive and negative charges moving in a magnetic field will automatically be separated to some degree by the field because the field forces positive and negative charges in opposite directions. This causes differently charged regions to appear and to be maintained as long as the particles continue to move in the magnetic field.

Separated charge results in an electric field, and this causes more acceleration of ions and electrons, again in opposite directions. In other words, as soon as some small inhomogeneities are created, this rapidly leads to the start of more complex plasma behavior.

Moving through Jupiter's intense magnetic field creates strong charge separation (voltage differential) and a resulting electrical current in a circuit of some 2 trillion watts power flowing between Io and Jupiter's polar areas

Over all scales, the signature filamentation and cellularization behavior of plasma creates thin layers where the charges are separated. Although the layers themselves are thin, they can extend over vast areas in space.



3.9 Important Things to Remember About Plasma Behavior

The essential point to bear in mind when considering space plasma is that it often behaves entirely unlike a gas. The charged particles which are the defining feature of a plasma are affected by electromagnetic fields, which the particles themselves can generate and modify.

In particular, plasma forms cells and filaments within itself, which is why it came to be called plasma, and these change the behavior of the plasma, like a feedback loop.

Plasma behavior is a little like fractal behavior. Both are complex systems arising from comparatively simple rules of behavior. Unlike fractals, though, plasma is also affected by instabilities, which add further layers of complexity.

Any theoretical or mathematical model of the Universe that does not take into account that complexity, is going to miss important aspects of the system's behavior and fail to model it accurately.

Back to Contents