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Suggested Citation:"Status." National Research Council. 1995. Plasma Science: From Fundamental Research to Technological Applications. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/4936.
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Page101
Suggested Citation:"Status." National Research Council. 1995. Plasma Science: From Fundamental Research to Technological Applications. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/4936.
×
Page102

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SPACE PLASMAS 101 eration of electrons and ions in the high-latitude, high-altitude regions of Earth leads to the formation of highly structured streams of energetic charged particles that impact Earth's upper atmosphere, creating the aurora. Finally plasma technology devices such as electric propulsion and plasma contactors operate on a small size scale, establishing their own local boundary conditions and interacting with the nearby space plasma. Knowledge of the physical processes operative in all of these examples is an important goal of space plasma physics for several reasons. First, it provides us with an understanding in quantitative terms of the variety of interrelated complex processes acting to shape and influence our terrestrial environment. Second, parts of the space plasma environment may be prototypical of the astrophysical environment. Third, space phenomena lead to fundamental scientific questions relating to the behavior of plasmas under conditions that can be very different from those created and studied in terrestrial laboratories. Finally, knowledge of the science underscores the development of technological applications operating in or based on the space plasma environment. As a consequence, investigations of natural space plasma processes extend the frontiers of human knowledge, enabling broader physical understanding of plasmas within the context of their general behavior. Understanding Earth's plasma environment also has important practical consequences. Among these are an ability to model and predict ionospheric, magnetospheric, and interplanetary disturbances that could adversely affect ground-based communications, sensitive instrumentation in geosynchronous orbit, and the safety of astronauts participating in future interplanetary endeavors. Status The era of in situ exploration of space plasma physics began in 1946 with V-2 rocket "snapshots" of the terrestrial space environment and continues aggressively today. Measurement techniques include both direct sampling and space-based remote sensing. An excellent example of the latter is the global observation from space of aurora at UV and optical wavelengths, clearly delineating the dynamics of the auroral oval. The initial exploration of the terrestrial magnetosphere and ionosphere is now reasonably well complete, although there are still regions of the solar system that have not yet been explored at all (e.g., Pluto, the heliopause, the solar corona) and regions that have been seen only through brief flybys (e.g., Mercury, Uranus, Neptune). Emphasis now is shifting to the details of physical processes controlling these plasmas. The results of all modern theories and models have depended significantly on the progress of in situ observations. Ground-based remote sensing studies of space plasma physics have played an important role by providing long-term, localized observations and understanding. Incoherent and coherent radar observations of natural ionospheric

SPACE PLASMAS 102 phenomena provide information with good temporal and altitude resolution from a few physical locations, thus complementing spacecraft measurements that give good global coverage. Magnetic and optical observatories help in elucidating global current systems and local energy deposition rates. Ground- based measurements that "modify" the natural plasma in the ionosphere have provided information on the physics of a variety of plasma instabilities and related phenomena. Over the past two decades, our capability to numerically investigate the behavior of space plasmas has steadily improved. Models and simulations of the 1960s and 1970s evolved as a consequence of attempts to understand particular features of the solar-terrestrial environment (e.g., the composition and thermal structure of the atmosphere and ionosphere, the dynamics of interhemispheric plasma interchange, the coupled dynamics of energetic plasma in the magnetosphere and electric fields and currents in the magnetosphere and ionosphere, the interaction of the solar wind with the geomagnetic field, the formation of shocks in the solar wind, the propagation of solar and galactic cosmic rays in the solar wind, and the dynamics of magnetic reconnection). More recently, the ability to study plasmas on a microscopic scale has evolved through the use of various simulation techniques with supercomputers. These codes permit the investigation of various modes of plasma dynamics associated with internal energy and momentum transfer between the plasma constituents and plasma waves. Unfortunately, owing to limitations of computer resources, these studies are often limited in terms of their spatial and temporal resolutions. The last 35 years of satellite exploration and ground-based experiments, going hand in hand with theoretical modeling and simulation, have put us at a stage where the gross plasma morphology of the solar system is defined in an average sense. This large-scale picture is a synthesis of a relatively few observations that are localized and scattered in both space and time. The major task ahead in our studies of space plasma physics is to obtain the necessary information to be able to understand and elucidate the processes that control the behavior of these plasmas. This will require the use of sophisticated, multispacecraft missions, accomplishing direct and remote sensing observations as well as active perturbation experiments. Ground observations and experimentation will continue to provide important long term measurements. Both space-based and ground experimentation will have to be coordinated effectively. Advanced computational techniques will dramatically strengthen theoretical modeling and simulation.

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Plasma science is the study of ionized states of matter. This book discusses the field's potential contributions to society and recommends actions that would optimize those contributions. It includes an assessment of the field's scientific and technological status as well as a discussion of broad themes such as fundamental plasma experiments, theoretical and computational plasma research, and plasma science education.

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