Solar activity associated with space weather can cause fluctuating electrical currents in space, directly impacting Earth’s electrical grid and energizing electrons and protons trapped in Earth’s changing magnetic field. These disturbances can cause problems with radio communications, global navigation satellite systems (such as the Global Positioning System, or GPS), power grids, and satellites.
Scientists’ ability to explore solutions to that problem has so far been severely limited. This is due to the fact that gravity affects laboratory studies conducted on Earth in very different ways than conditions in space. However, a recent study by UCLA physicists may help solve that problem. They have effectively reproduced the type of gravity existing in or near stars and other planets within a glass sphere 3 centimeters in diameter (about 1.2 inches). Its study would be an important step to ensure the safety of astronauts (and their equipment) during space missions and the proper functioning of satellites.
They accomplished this by using sound waves to produce a spherical gravitational field and plasma convection. Gas cools as it approaches the surface of a body, then heats up and rises again as it reaches the core. This process gives rise to a fluid current, which produces a magnetic current. Seth Putterman, UCLA professor of physics and lead author of the study, says: “People were so interested in trying to model spherical convection with lab experiments that they put an experiment on the space shuttle because they couldn’t get a force field strong enough on the ground. We showed that our microwave-generated sound system produced gravity so strong that Earth’s gravity was not a factor. We no longer need to go into space to do these experiments.”