MONTEREY, CA.--A plasma scientist and a radio astronomer announced the discovery of charged particle flows in interstellar space at the 1999 International Conference on Plasma Science in Monterey, California. The discovery culminated decades of speculation and debate whether or not electricity existed on the scale of hundreds of thousands of light years in the interstellar space between the stars.

According to Anthony Peratt, Scientific Advisor to the United States Department of Energy and a plasma researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the discovery was made by computer analyzing large amounts of data gathered by radio telescopes from regions in space known to be occupied by 'neutral clouds of hydrogen.' The data was processed and the results obtained by radio astronomer Gerrit Verschuur, Physics Department, University of Memphis. Verschuur found that the 'neutral hydrogen clouds' were not completely a neutral gas of hydrogen and other elements, but rather consisted of charged particles of electrons and ions, called 'plasma.'

The name plasma as applied to charged particles was borrowed from blood-plasma by Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir in 1923 because the particles interacted collectively in a lifelike manner in his laboratory experiments. "Verschuur analyzed nearly two thousand clouds, principally from the Aericibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, but also from other radio telescopes scattered around the globe," said Peratt. Verschuur had previously found, under high resolution computer processing, that the 'clouds' were not clouds at all but were instead filaments of material which twisted and wound like helices over enormous distances between the stars.

Peratt said that the filaments between the stars are not visible themselves but are observable with radio telescopes that can observe space at much longer wavelengths than are visible to the human eye. Prof. Per Carlqvist, a researcher at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, estimated that the interstellar filaments found by Verschuur conducted electricity with currents as high as ten-thousand billion amperes.

"The individual filaments in space are often called Z-pinches. These Z-pinches occur when current-carrying plasma 'pinches' itself into a filament by a magnetic field the current produces around the plasma. Z-pinches, such as those produced on the Sandia National Laboratories 'Z' machine, are among the most prolific producers of X-rays known," cited Peratt.

The United States Department of Energy funded Z-machine at Sandia has surprised the scientific community during the last few years by breaking all records in the production of high intensity X-rays from wire filaments converted into plasmas by million-volt pulses. Such filaments have already been discovered in our own solar system. For example, the aurora on Earth is known to be caused by million ampere currents flowing down the Earth's magnetic field lines at the northern and southern poles while similar were found by planetary explorer spacecraft to connect the planet Jupiter with its closest satellite Io.

That such currents existed on a much larger scale outside the solar system and beyond the reach of spacecraft has been a topic of conjecture among astronomers and space plasma scientists. According to Igor Alexeff, President of the Nuclear and Plasma Sciences Society hosting the conference, "It's not unusual that neutral hydrogen in space should show such well organized current structures; plasma also acts in a lifelike and intelligent way in laboratory experiments and in naturally occurring plasmas such as lightning."

Plasma scientists have long known that 99.999 percent of all observable matter in the universe is matter in the plasma state, often referred to as the fourth, or fundamental, state of matter. In contrast to the first three states of matter most familiar to us on Earth: gases, liquids, and solids; plasmas generate and react strongly to electromagnetic fields. Plasmas are also prodigious producers of electromagnetic radiation. The Sun is a plasma, as are all of the stars and interstellar space, although for the latter, it was thought that the plasma was quite tenuous and spread out until the discovery of the filaments.

On Earth plasma exists in the form of lightning, fluorescent bulbs, flames, the flow of currents in conductors and semiconductors, and the aurora. The earth actually is encased in a protective shell of plasma called the ionosphere and magnetosphere, shielding life from high-energy cosmic and other electromagnetic rays from space.

The discovery was called "Exciting," by S. T. Lai, a researcher at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Hanscom, MA. Lai, an authority on a phenomena called "critical ionization velocity," who noted that the data fell precisely where predicted by the late physics Nobel laureate Hannes Alfvén (1908-1995), who in his theory about the origin of planets in 1942, calculated that if a neutral cloud in space fell through a magnetized plasma, the neutral gas would itself become ionized at discrete velocities.

Alfvén predicted that the signature of his plasma theory in space would be the observation of filaments and his discrete velocities. AlfvÈn calculated that the critical velocity of all the elements in the periodic table could be grouped into just four velocity bands, the first at 51 kilometers per second from hydrogen, the second at 34 kilometers per second from helium, the third centered around 14 kilometers per second from oxygen, neon, and carbon, and a fourth centered around 6 kilometers per second from calcium, sodium, and other heavy elements. “The observed data show precisely these velocities,” remarked Peratt. “Discrete velocity components are seen 51, 32, 14, and 5 kilometers per second. Moreover the lines cascade from higher velocity to lower velocity, as they must as the radiotelescope is sighted closer to a filament according to the theory,” he said.

M. Garcia, a physicist and electrical engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and C. Chan, director of the Plasma Science Laboratory at Northeastern University suggested the possibility of of using new high-power laser and generator facilities at the National Laboratories to further study the filamentation processes and critical velocity effects occurring in the interstellar medium. In any event, a consensus that space is far more electric than earlier imagined suggests a revision of our understanding physical processes in space as far ranging as the formation of planets to the sources of high energy particles and radiation.

'Electrical currents seem to play a significant role,' concluded Peratt. A full description of the discovery will appear In the September 1999 issue of the Astronomical Journal and the December 2000 issue of the IEEE Transactions on Plasma Science.


The observation that the ‘clouds’ of galactic neutral hydrogen (0.0001 degree of ionization) are actually filamentary in high resolution radiotelescope data led to the discovery that the linewidths of the atomic species in the presence of the self-field of the current-conducting filaments (cosmic z-pinches) fall precisely where predicted by the CIV effect.

The figure shows a histogram of the HI emission linewidths of the Leiden-Dwingeloo 1996 Survey (black bars).

The colored bars represent CIV data tabulated in Physics of the Plasma Universe, A. L. Peratt, Springer-Verlag, 1992.

Critical Ionization Velocity/Neutral Hydrogen Cloud data