Voyager Probes the Sun’s Electrical Environment

“…with his [Birkeland’s] extraordinary intuition he had a feeling for the huge electrical importance of the universe. Future research may show that such messages from the sun are equally important to us as Galileo’s understanding of messages from the stars when he took his telescope and studied space for the first time.”
—Sem Sæland, memorial address to Birkeland, 22 September 1919.

“…the interaction of our sun with the surrounding interstellar matter from other stars is more dynamic and complex than we had imagined, and there is more yet to be learned as Voyager begins the final leg of its race to the edge of interstellar space.”
—Dr. Edward Stone, Voyager Project Scientist at CalTech, 27 September 2005.

“The expectations of NASA scientists are not being met because their shock front model is incorrect. The boundary that Voyager has reached is more complex and structured than a mechanical impact. It conforms more closely to the effects seen in electric discharges in gases at low pressures, discovered by Irving Langmuir in the 1920’s and 30’s. Until the fabulous journey of the Voyager spacecrafts scientists have not been so confronted with the electrical nature of the Sun and its galactic environment.”
—Wal Thornhill, 29 September 2006.

Astronomers consider stars as isolated bodies “burning” their own fuel as they orbit the galaxy. Stars produce exhaust “winds” for reasons that are not clear. These winds are thought to collide with the interstellar medium like an aircraft speeding through thin air. So we read about a “shock front” and “turbulence” at the interface with deep space. But is this simple analogy accurate?

Stars are the visible components of galaxies. Big bang cosmology has no explanation for galaxies and simply hopes someone will solve the problem, someday. Like old movie matinee serials, invoking a miracle at the start of each episode has allowed the fictional big bang story to be maintained. But if we cannot explain galaxies then our understanding of stars and their real galactic environment is doubtful.

Meanwhile the relatively new discipline of plasma cosmology has demonstrated quite simply and clearly by experiment and supercomputer simulation that galaxies are a natural electrical phenomenon in a universe that is more than 99% plasma. But cosmology, touted as the “Queen of the sciences,” has more in common with theology. One leading astronomer has compared it to the medieval church because of its intolerance of any theory or data that does not support the belief in the miraculous creation event of the big bang.

Electric galaxies imply an electrical interface with stars. But so far, plasma cosmology has not made that connection. It has been content to show that cosmic plasma “Z-pinch” discharge phenomena are present at the birth and death of stars. A recent study has found the classic “hourglass” shape of the Z-pinch in a star-forming region and, of course, it is well known in planetary nebulae—the so-called death throes of a star. It is also found in supernova remnants.

M2-9: Wings of a Butterfly Nebula
Planetary nebula M2-9 showing the classic hourglass, Z-pinch shape. —Credit: M Balick (Uni of Washington) & NASA

But throughout its life, a star is viewed conventionally as a self-gravitating body that produces energy by consuming itself in a central thermonuclear fire. It is a model that is a product of the early 20th century and long past its “use by” date. In the optimism at the dawn of the nuclear age it was thought that nuclear energy would solve all our energy problems and also explain the steady source of energy from the Sun, which had to have shone for geological ages past and hopefully would do so into the future. But the thermonuclear model has many difficulties. It is a highly unlikely and essentially unstable model (based on the hydrogen bomb) and follows a gravitational theory of star formation that hasn’t been shown to work. And as one perceptive scholar wrote, “The modern astrophysical concept that ascribes the sun’s energy to thermonuclear reactions deep in the solar interior is contradicted by nearly every observable aspect of the sun.”

The ELECTRIC UNIVERSE® model simply argues that following their birth in a cosmic plasma Z-pinch discharge, stars continue to be lit electrically throughout their life at the focus of a mild, invisible Z-pinch. If this is so, interstellar spacecraft will not find what scientists expect at the boundary between the Sun’s domain and the galaxy. I wrote on the subject in November last year in “Voyager 1 at the Edge – of what?
NASA reported more surprises on September 21, 2006:

Surprises from the Edge of the Solar System

Almost every day, the great antennas of NASA’s Deep Space Network turn to a blank patch of sky in the constellation Ophiuchus. Pointing at nothing, or so it seems, they invariably pick up a signal, faint but full of intelligence. The source is beyond Neptune, beyond Pluto, on the verge of the stars themselves. It’s Voyager 1. The spacecraft left Earth in 1977 on a mission to visit Jupiter and Saturn. Almost 30 years later, with the gas giants long ago seen and done, Voyager 1 is still going and encountering some strange things.


“We’ve entered a totally new region of space,” says Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist and the former director of JPL. “And the spacecraft is beaming back surprising new information.” (See Ed Stone video).

Before we reveal the surprises, let us discuss exactly where Voyager 1 is: Our entire solar system—planets and all—sits inside a gargantuan bubble of gas about four times wider than the orbit of Neptune. The sun is responsible. It blows the bubble by means of the solar wind. Astronomers call the bubble itself “the heliosphere” and its outer membrane “the heliosheath.”

Voyager 1 is about 10 billion miles from Earth, inside the heliosheath. “You can simulate the heliosheath in your kitchen sink,” says Stone. “Turn on the faucet so that a thin stream of water pours into the sink. Look down into the basin. Where the stream hits bottom, that’s the sun. From there, water flows outward in a thin, perfectly radial sheet. That’s the solar wind. As the water (or solar wind) expands, it gets thinner and thinner, and it can’t push as hard. Abruptly, a sluggish, turbulent ring forms. That ring is the heliosheath.”

Comment: This description of the Sun’s interface with interstellar space is very old-fashioned. It uses terms that are appropriate in discussing movement of air or water but it is entirely misleading and inappropriate when applied to plasma boundaries.

That the solar wind can be compared to the flow of a flat sheet of water raises questions about why that should be so from a spherical star inside a spherical “bubble.” Invoking solar magnetism raises more questions than it answers. The mechanical analogy is misleading and must inevitably result in more surprises for scientists who base their expectations upon it.

The report continues…

And now for the surprises:

Magnetic Potholes: Every now and then, Voyager 1 sails through a “magnetic pothole” where the magnetic field of the heliosheath almost vanishes, dropping from a typical value of 0.1 nanoTesla (nT) to 0.01 nT or less. There are also “magnetic speed bumps” where the field strength jumps to twice normal, from 0.1 nT to 0.2 nT. These speed bumps and potholes are an unexpected form of turbulence. What role do they play in scattering cosmic rays? “This is under investigation,” says Stone.

Sluggish solar wind: The solar wind in the heliosheath is slower than anyone expected. “The solar wind is supposed to slow down out there, just as the water in your sink slowed down to make the ‘sluggish ring,'” says Stone, “but not this slow.” Before Voyager 1 arrived, computer models predicted a wind speed of 200,000 to 300,000 mph. Voyager 1 measured only about 34,000 mph. “This means our computer models need to be refined.”

Anomalous Cosmic Rays: “This one takes a little explaining,” he says. “While the heliosheath protects us from deep-space cosmic rays, at the same time it is busy producing some cosmic rays of its own. A shock wave at the inner boundary of the heliosheath imparts energy to subatomic particles which zip, cosmic-ray-like, into the inner solar system. “We call them ‘anomalous cosmic rays.’ They’re not as dangerous as galactic cosmic rays because they are not so energetic.”

Anomalous cosmic rays are supposed to come from the Termination Shock–but Voyager 1 found otherwise. Researchers expected Voyager 1 to encounter the greatest number of anomalous cosmic rays at the inner boundary of the heliosheath “because that’s where we thought anomalous cosmic rays were produced.” Surprise: Voyager crossed the boundary in December 2004 and there was no spike in cosmic rays. Only now, 300+ million miles later, is the intensity beginning to grow. “This is really puzzling,” says Stone. “Where are these anomalous cosmic rays coming from?”

Voyager 1 may find the source—and who knows what else?—as it continues its journey. The heliosheath is 3 to 4 billion miles in thickness, and Voyager 1 will be inside it for another 10 years or so. That’s a lot of new territory to explore and plenty of time for more surprises.

No Surprises for an Electric Sun

The Nobel Prize winner and pioneer of plasma physics, Irving Langmuir, wrote on the subject of Electric Discharges in Gases at Low Pressures:

“When a difference of potential is applied to two electrodes in a gas and a current flows through the gas between these electrodes, the distribution of potential in the space assumes a wide variety of forms. Some of these are in striking contrast to the distribution obtained with metal conductors… there are many types of discharge in which most of the potential drop takes place within a short distance from the cathode, the rest of the space having practically the potential of the anode. Moreover, it is common to have potential maxima and minima in the space between the electrodes; and it often happens that one of these maxima in space has a potential higher than that of the anode, or a minimum has a potential lower than that of the cathode. These seemingly anomalous phenomena have been shown, in recent years, to represent the normal working of the fundamental electrical properties of gases…”

The expectations of NASA scientists are not being met because their shock front model is incorrect. The boundary that Voyager has reached is more complex and structured than a mechanical impact. It conforms more closely to the effects seen in electric discharges in gases at low pressures, discovered by Irving Langmuir in the 1920’s and 30’s. Until the fabulous journey of the Voyager spacecrafts scientists have not been so confronted with the electrical nature of the Sun and its galactic environment. As Langmuir noted, “most of the potential drop takes place within a short distance from the cathode, the rest of the space having practically the potential of the anode.” In other words, throughout interplanetary space the steady radial electric field is so weak that its effects have been mistakenly attributed to other causes. For instance, the solar wind ‘s acceleration has been attributed to the heat of the corona and plasma waves emanating from the Sun. Cometary ablation and disintegration has been credited to solar heating. And the strange steady backward acceleration of the Voyager spacecrafts toward the Sun remains a mystery.

A simple diagram of the characteristics of a glow discharge.
A simple diagram of the characteristics of a glow discharge (after Cobine). Here the Sun is the anode at the right and the discharge into the interstellar plasma is similar to that of a high-voltage transmission line in air—commonly referred to as a "corona discharge."

It is a plasma sheath, or “double layer” of charge that separates the solar plasma from the interstellar plasma. The double layer forms part of the larger electric circuit of the solar Z-pinch. The double layer carries current and has an inner region of negative charge density and an outer region of positive charge density. Between the charge layers is a strong electric field. Allowing for the vast hourglass shape of the Sun’s galactic circuitry, which will distort the pattern found by the Voyager spacecraft from the expected spherical shape, there are some general observations that can be made about what to expect. The complexity of plasma behavior makes it impossible to be highly specific.

The first significant feature encountered by Voyager as it moves from right to left in the diagram is the reversal of the electric field, which decelerates solar wind protons and accelerates electrons along the magnetic field lines. This effect gave NASA scientists the impression that Voyager had reached a hypothetical termination shock. It explains why the deceleration of the solar wind protons was greater than expected (“sluggish solar wind’) and no ACR [anomalous cosmic ray] particles were found being accelerated there. Also beams of electrons were often found streaming out from the Sun along the magnetic field lines.

The electric field is strongest near the virtual cathode and it accelerates galactic electrons toward the Sun, leaving a region of positive space charge. The energetic electrons will ionize neutral interstellar particles that are drifting through the plasma sheath. It seems likely that those formed to the right of the voltage peak will experience acceleration toward the Sun to become anomalous cosmic rays. The voltage maximum in the diagram may, as Langmuir noted, be higher than the Sun’s potential by an amount sufficient to account for the maximum energy of anomalous cosmic rays.

However, the most interesting effect may be found in the “cathode drop” region to the left of the voltage peak, where the powerful electric field has been estimated to accelerate solar wind protons away from the Sun at cosmic ray energies of the order of 10 billion electron volts. It seems that all stars generate cosmic rays in this way with energies that reflect the driving voltage of the star. The effect on a charged Voyager spacecraft could be very interesting too.

Wal Thornhill

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