As plasma interactions are common throughout the Universe, the results from this study will provide a better understanding of a number of space plasma phenomena, such as those involved in Earth's radiation belt, geomagnetic storms, aurorae, and atmospheric loss from planets.
Plasmas are ionised gases containing negative electrons, positive ions and electromagnetic fields. These fields can oscillate over time, carrying energy as plasma waves. In principle, the waves could act as intermediaries that transfer energy between two different types of ion, but that process has not been directly observed until now.
As part of the Magnetospheric Multiscale mission, four spacecraft fly in close formation through Earth's magnetosphere, the region of plasma dominated by our planet's magnetic field. Naritoshi Kitamura et al. report that on September 1, 2015, the spacecraft encountered an unusual region of the magnetospheric where there was a transfer of energy from hydrogen ions to plasma waves, as expected.
The authors discovered that there was further transfer of energy from the plasma to neighboring helium ions, explaining how the helium ions were accelerated to high energies. These data provide important insights into wave-particle interactions that occur ubiquitously in space.
Featured image credit: NASA