Space is weird—no rocket scientist needed. Strangeness may surprise you. Unseen electromagnetic forces control space. It has strange materials we don’t see on Earth. Here are five space-only occurrences.
Earth’s stuff is solid, liquid, or gas. In space, 99.9% of matter is plasma. When heated to great temperatures or blasted with a strong electric current, this material is transformed into something far more potent than gas.
Plasma is everywhere, yet we seldom touch it. All stars, including the Sun, are mainly plasma. It appears in lightning and neon signs on Earth.
Plasma has the ability to work as a unit, as opposed to chaotically swarming gas particles. It conducts electricity and is impacted by electromagnetic forces, which maintain magnets on your fridge. These fields can regulate plasma’s charged particles and produce waves that accelerate them.
Invisible magnetic fields sculpt plasma in space. The same magnetic field that points compasses north drives plasma around Earth. Magnetic forces on the Sun launch solar flares and solar wind, which travels around the solar system. Solar wind may cause auroras and space weather, which can harm satellites and telecommunications if powerful enough.
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A wide range of temperatures may be found on Earth, from Siberia to the Sahara. 134°F to -129°F (57°C to -89°C) are both records. Extreme on Earth is normal in space. Temperatures vary widely on planets lacking an insulating atmosphere. Mercury has 840°F (449°C) days and -275°F (-171°C) nights. Some spacecraft encounter 60°F (33°C) temperature fluctuations between their sunny and shaded sides. That’s like a glass of water freezing in the shade on a hot day. At closest approach, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will endure 2,000-degree changes.
NASA’s satellites and equipment are built to survive these conditions. There are a few instances each year when NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory’s orbit crosses through Earth’s shade. During an eclipse, Sun-facing solar panels cool by 317°F (158°C). Onboard heaters allow a half-degree drop to keep electronics and equipment safe.
Astronaut suits can endure temperatures between -157°C and 121°C. White suits reflect sunlight, and heaters keep astronauts comfortable in the dark. They offer steady pressure and oxygen and withstand micrometeorites and UV rays.
The Sun’s core is now compressing hydrogen into helium. Fusion is the combining of atoms under pressure and heat to form new elements.
When the cosmos was created, it was largely hydrogen and helium, with a few additional light elements thrown in for good measure. Stars and supernovae have subsequently fused more than 80 elements, some of which support life.
Sun and stars are fusion machines. The Sun fuses 600 million metric tonnes of hydrogen per second, or 102 Great Pyramids.
Fusion creates new elements and releases energy and photons. These photons take 250,000 years to get from the solar core to the Sun’s visible surface. After then, light travels the 93 million miles to Earth in eight minutes.
Fission, the opposite nuclear process, divides heavy atoms into smaller ones and is employed in nuclear power plants. Fission can cause a massive explosion. For a given mass, it’s still less than fusion energy. Scientists haven’t found out how to regulate plasma to create fusion power.
4. Magnetic explosions
Space surrounding Earth explodes daily. At some point, the magnetic field lines break and re-align, sending charged particles away. Magnetic reconnection is explosive.
Magnetic reconnection isn’t visible, but its consequences are. Some disturbed particles enter Earth’s upper atmosphere, sparking auroras.
Magnetic reconnection occurs anywhere magnetic fields twist. Researchers can better comprehend reconnection in hard-to-reach places like flares on the Sun and black holes’ surroundings by using NASA projects like the Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission.
5. Supersonic shocks
Pushing anything transfers energy on Earth. This happens when trees shake in the wind. In space, energy may be transferred without touching. Shocks perform this odd transmission.
Plasma waves, electric and magnetic fields transmit energy in shocks. Imagine particles as flying birds. If a tailwind builds up, the birds fly faster even though nothing appears to be pushing them. When encountering a magnetic field, particles behave similarly. Magnetic fields can increase them.
Supersonic speeds create shock waves. If a supersonic flow strikes a stationary item, it generates a bow shock, like a boat’s bow wave in a rapid stream. Solar wind crashing into Earth’s magnetic field creates a bow shock.
Shocks occur around plasma-ejecting supernovae. Earth occasionally experiences earthquakes. When jets and gunfire go faster than sound.