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Astrophysical Plasmas - PHY00014M

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  • Department: Physics
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Nigel Woolsey
  • Credit value: 10 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2019-20
    • See module specification for other years: 2018-19

Related modules

Pre-requisite modules

  • None

Co-requisite modules

  • None

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Spring Term 2019-20

Module aims

Plasma is made up of electrons and ions, and these particles respond to magnetic and electric fields that fill much of space between the interior of the Sun to the upper layers of the Earth's atmosphere and beyond. The module will start with a description of astrophysical plasmas and an introduction to basic plasma physics and gas dynamics. This introduction is followed by a discussion of the dynamics of the interstellar medium, the processes that heat and cool interstellar medium, and the effects of stellar winds, shocks, and jets. These processes are presented in terms of a magneto-hydrodynamic plasma. This leads to the discussion of magnetic fields, the acceleration of cosmic rays and an energy budget of the interstellar medium. Finally, we discuss the use of laboratory plasma in the study of fundamental plasma processes that occur in occur in astrophysical plasmas. The approach is to identify and use dimensionless scaling of plasma models to illustrate how the enormous astrophysical scales are reduce to those typical of an experiment. This then leads to a discussion of current research.

Module learning outcomes

Define a plasma.

State typical characteristics of various astronomical plasmas

Outline the sources and losses of radiation in astronomical systems and effects this has on the systems.

Understand the effect of stellar radiation on the surrounding interstellar medium.

Explain the role of collisions in gases and plasmas and the Coulomb logarithm.

Calculate particle motion in homogeneous and inhomogeneous magnetic fields.

State the limitations of guiding centre theory.

Apply guiding centre theory to description of energetic particles, and apply relativistic corrections when necessary.

Determine when a fluid approximation can be applied to plasma

Outline the approximations used to derive hydrodynamic and magnetohydrodynamic models and the need for an equation of state and Ohm s law.

Write down a polytropic equation of state and explain the role of the polytropic index.

Describe viscosity and magnetic field diffusion and use the Rynolds number and magnetic Reynold number to identify situations when viscosity and diffusion are not important.

Explain the concept of flux freezing.

State the origin of stellar winds, and explain why the Solar Wind is supersonic, describe heliosphere and the interaction with a magnetosphere.

Derive Rankine-Hugoniot relations and be able to apply them to astrophysical phenomena in the shock and stellar frame.

Explain the effects the equation of state, radiation and magnetic fields have on shocks.

Describe the evolution of supernova remnants and the impact these systems have on the interstellar medium.

Explain evidence that suggests supernova remnants are the source of Galactic cosmic rays and the importance of cosmic rays in the interstellar medium.

Describe 1st and 2nd order Fermi acceleration of charged particles.

Show how laboratory experiments can simulate aspects of astronomical plasmas.


Task Length % of module mark
24 hour open exam
Astrophysical Plasmas
N/A 100

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
24 hour open exam
Astrophysical Plasmas
N/A 100

Module feedback

You will receive the marks for the individual exams from your supervisor. Detailed model answers will be provided on the intranet. You should discuss your performance with your supervisor. The marked scripts will not be returned to you.

Individual meetings with supervisor will take place where you can discuss your academic progress in detail.

Indicative reading

To cover varying student backgrounds:

Choudhuri A R: Physics of Fluids and Plasmas (CUP 1998)

Drake R P: High-Energy-Density Physics: Fundamentals, Inertial Fusion, and Experimental Astrophysics (Springer 2006)

Dyson J E, Williams D A: The Physics of the Interstellar Medium (PUP 1997) ***

Frank J, King A, Raine D: Accretion Power in Astrophysics (CUP 2002)

Kulsrud R M, Spergel D: Plasma Physics for Astrophysics (PUP 2005)

Longair M S: High Energy Astrophysics (CUP 2011) ***

Parks G: An Introduction Physics of Space Plasmas (Perseus 2003)

Shu F H: The Physics of Astrophysics: Gas Dynamics (University Science Books 1992)

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.

Coronavirus (COVID-19): changes to courses

The 2020/21 academic year will start in September. We aim to deliver as much face-to-face teaching as we can, supported by high quality online alternatives where we must.

Find details of the measures we're planning to protect our community.

Course changes for new students