Most visible matter in the universe doesn’t look like our textbook picture of a nucleus surrounded by tethered electrons. Out beyond our borders, inside massive clusters, galaxies swim in a sea of plasma—a form of matter in which electrons and nuclei wander unmoored.
Though it makes up the majority of the visible matter in the universe, this plasma remains poorly understood; scientists do not have a theory that fully describes its behavior, especially at small scales.
However, a University of Chicago astrophysicist led a study that provides a brand-new glimpse of the small-scale physics of such plasma. Using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, scientists took a detailed look at the plasma in a distant galaxy cluster and discovered the flow of plasma is much less viscous than expected and, therefore, turbulence occurs on relatively small scales—an important finding for our numerical models of the largest objects in the universe.
“High-resolution X-ray observations allowed us to learn some surprising truths about the viscosity of these plasmas,” said Irina Zhuravleva, an assistant professor of astrophysics and first author of the study, published June 17 in Nature Astronomy. “One might expect that variations in density that arise in the plasma are quickly erased by viscosity; however, we saw the opposite—the plasma finds ways to maintain them.”
Scattered around the universe are massive clusters of galaxies, some of them millions of light-years across containing thousands of galaxies. They sit in a type of plasma that we cannot recreate on Earth. It is extremely sparse—on the order of a sextillion times less dense than air on Earth—and has very weak magnetic fields, tens of thousands of times weaker than we experience on the Earth’s surface. To study this plasma, therefore, scientists must rely on cosmic laboratories such as clusters of galaxies.