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MAGPIE: Understanding Solar Wind By Recreating It

What are solar winds and more importantly, how does it affect Earth and other planets in our solar system? We have a rough idea of solar winds in that, they are a stream of particles being emitted outward from the sun.

But scientists want to know more and have a deeper understanding of how it interacts with Earth. So they sent a probe on a mission toward the sun. In the meantime, the Imperial College of London is doing research on these solar winds by recreating it.

The Mega Ampere Generator for Plasma Implosion Experiments, or MAGPIE, is a two-storey machine within the labyrinthine basement of Imperial College London. Inside, a box-sized crucible resides at the heart of a collection of giant tubes.
Every now and then, for half a millionth of a second, it literally explodes into life, releasing a burst of miniaturized solar wind that scientists can study as it interacts with its magnetic target.

(Image credit: Goddard Space Flight Center/NASA)


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This is kind of the life cycle of many of the more exotic fusion research devices. They get built primarily to try out new fusion relevant ideas, but then on the side get used for astrophysical plasma and basic plasma research. Sometimes a machine that cannot get funding for fusion research will get a small fraction of its original funding to keep going with one of these other topics, which ends up being a better deal than selling the machine for parts and scrap.

Something that helps is that many plasma dynamics come down to "dimensionless quantities" that don't depend on a particular size or timescale. As long as relevant quantities are scaled appropriately, you can find analogies in systems that vary by many orders of magnitude in size, speed, temperature, density, etc. Here an experiment that lasts nanoseconds to microseconds is analogous to something that takes seconds to hours to happen on a larger scale. A project I once worked on proposed something similar, but with plasma that was milliseconds long instead. Each scale comes with different pros and cons when it comes to making measurements.
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