The plasma universe

It is estimated that 99% of the matter in the observable universe is in the plasma state...hence the expression "plasma universe." (The phrase "observable universe" is an important qualifier: roughly 90% of the mass of the universe is thought to be contained in "dark matter," the composition and state of which are unknown.) Stars, stellar and extragalactic jets, and the interstellar medium are examples of astrophysical plasmas (see figure). In our solar system, the Sun, the interplanetary medium, the magnetospheres and/or ionospheres of the Earth and other planets, as well as the ionospheres of comets and certain planetary moons all consist of plasmas.

The plasmas of interest to space physicists are extremely tenuous, with densities dramatically lower than those achieved in laboratory vacuums. The density of the best laboratory vacuum is about 10 billion particles per cubic centimeter. In comparison, the density of the densest magnetospheric plasma region, the inner plasmasphere, is only 1000 particles per cubic centimeter, while that of the plasma sheet is less than 1 particle per cubic centimeter.

The temperatures of space plasmas are very high, ranging from several thousand degrees Celsius in the plasmasphere to several million degrees in the ring current. While the temperatures of the "cooler" plasmas of the ionosphere and plasmasphere are typically given in degrees Kelvin, those of the "hotter" magnetospheric plasmas are more commonly expressed in terms of the average kinetic energies of their constitutent particles measured in "electron volts." An electron volt (eV) is the energy that an electron acquires as it is accelerated through a potential difference of one volt and is equivalent to 11,600 degrees Kelvin. Magnetospheric plasmas are often characterized as being "cold" or "hot." Although these labels are quite subjective, they are widely used in the space physics literature. As a rule of thumb, plasmas with temperatures less than about 100 eV are "cold," while those with temperatures ranging from 100 eV to 30 keV can be considered "hot." (Particles with higher energies--such as those that populate the radiation belt--are termed "energetic.")

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