All around the plasma crystal

MPE welcomes cosmonauts and physicists to the PK-3 Plus Symposium

January 14, 2011
In mid-December, more than 50 scientists found their way through snow and ice to the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) for a two-day symposium about the plasma crystal experiments on board the International Space Station. The very interesting scientific programme of the meeting with some 30 talks about different physical phenomena that can be studied in space and in the laboratory was complemented by a special treat for students at a Garching school: Two cosmonauts joined them on the morning of 16 December for a question and answer session.

A plasma forms either if a gas is heated to very high temperatures, so that its molecules dissociate in ions and free electrons, or if the gas is subjected to a high voltage discharge. MPE researchers have found that under certain conditions plasmas can become liquid or may even crystallise. In such a so-called "complex plasma" tiny particles are suspended in the plasma and can form regular structures. Even though the particles are very small (about one thousandth of a millimetre), they are large compared to molecules, which allows the scientists to study certain physical processes on a single particle basis and in slow motion.

Due to Earth's gravity, some plasma crystal experiments need to be carried out in space by cosmonauts. By now, these micro-gravity experiments have a long tradition (see also
MPE Press Release 27 January 2010 ): Yuri Baturin, one of the cosmonauts present at the meeting was the first to do experiments with a plasma crystal on the MIR space station, 12 years ago. Apart from medical experiments, the MPE plasma crystal experiments have the longest space history.

Being able to talk to cosmonauts directly is not only very important for the scientists in terms of their experiences with this experiment and further developments, it is also a special treat to learn more about life and working conditions in space. This year, also some 200 school children at the Garching Grundschule Ost as well as pupils from the Werner-Heisenberg-Gymnasium were able to talk to the cosmonauts Mikhail Tyurin and Oleg Kotov. The cosmonauts were surprised about how active and inquisitive the children were, and the Russian/English language barrier turned out not to be a barrier at all.

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