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Perspective ARTICLE

Front. Astron. Space Sci., 14 April 2021 |

The Plasma Universe: A Coherent Science Theme for Voyage 2050

www.frontiersin.orgDaniel Verscharen1,2*, www.frontiersin.orgRobert T. Wicks3, www.frontiersin.orgGraziella Branduardi-Raymont1, www.frontiersin.orgRobertus Erdélyi4,5,6, www.frontiersin.orgFilippo Frontera7, www.frontiersin.orgCharlotte Götz8, www.frontiersin.orgCristiano Guidorzi7, www.frontiersin.orgVianney Lebouteiller9,10, www.frontiersin.orgSarah A. Matthews1, www.frontiersin.orgFabrizio Nicastro11, www.frontiersin.orgIain Jonathan Rae3, www.frontiersin.orgAlessandro Retinò12, www.frontiersin.orgAurora Simionescu13,14,15, www.frontiersin.orgPaolo Soffitta16, www.frontiersin.orgPhil Uttley17 and www.frontiersin.orgRobert F. Wimmer-Schweingruber18,19
  • 1Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London, Dorking, United Kingdom
  • 2Space Science Center, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH, United States
  • 3Department of Mathematics, Physics and Electrical Engineering, Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom
  • 4Solar Physics and Space Plasma Research Centre, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, United Kingdom
  • 5Department of Astronomy, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary
  • 6Gyula Bay Zoltán Solar Observatory (GSO), Hungarian Solar Physics Foundation (HSPF), Gyula, Hungary
  • 7Department of Physics and Earth Sciences, University of Ferrara, Ferrara, Italy
  • 8ESTEC, European Space Agency, Noordwijk, Netherlands
  • 9AIM, CEA, CNRS, Université Paris-Saclay, Université Paris Diderot, Sorbonne Paris Cité, Gif-sur-Yvette, France
  • 10Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC, United States
  • 11Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF), Rome Astronomical Observatory, Rome, Italy
  • 12Laboratoire de Physique des Plasmas, École Polytechnique, Palaiseau, France
  • 13SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research, Utrecht, Netherlands
  • 14Leiden Observatory, Leiden University, Leiden, Netherlands
  • 15Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe (WPI), The University of Tokyo, Kashiwa, Japan
  • 16Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF), Istituto di Astrofisica e Planetologia Spaziali, Rome, Italy
  • 17Anton Pannekoek Institute, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • 18Institute of Experimental and Applied Physics, Kiel University, Kiel, Germany
  • 19National Space Science Center, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China

In review of the White Papers from the Voyage 2050 process1 and after the public presentation of a number of these papers in October 2019 in Madrid, we as White Paper lead authors have identified a coherent science theme that transcends the divisions around which the Topical Teams are structured. This note aims to highlight this synergistic science theme and to make the Topical Teams and the Voyage 2050 Senior Committee aware of the wide importance of these topics and the broad support that they have across the worldwide science community.

Baryonic matter in the Universe is almost exclusively in the plasma state. It forms structures on a huge range of scales, reaching from the kinetic electron and ion microscales to the size of the entire observable Universe. These plasmas include very diverse objects such as magnetic cavities around comets, planetary magnetospheres, the solar atmosphere, the outer heliosphere, accretion discs around compact objects, galaxy-scale “Fermi bubbles,” the intracluster medium, and the intergalactic medium permeating the cosmic web. The key difficulty in understanding of all these objects lies in the two-way nature of the intrinsic multi-scale physics of plasmas: processes on the largest scales affect the small-scale physics, and processes on the smallest scales affect the large-scale evolution of plasmas.

These multi-scale processes are united by fundamental physics questions that underpin the physics addressed in all of the 18 White Papers referenced below, e.g.

• How are electrons and ions heated and accelerated, and how is energy partitioned?

• What is the role of the magnetic field?

• What are the properties and roles of different energisation regions in plasma structures?

• What is the role of plasma physics in the formation and evolution of different processes and objects including flux tubes, turbulence, waves, flows, jets, discs, magnetospheres, coronae, and halos?

• What are the effects of rapid and discontinuous processes such as shocks and reconnection?

The answers to these fundamental questions are very important for a wide range of processes in the Universe including:

• accretion of matter onto compact objects,

• cosmic-ray acceleration,

• galaxy formation,

• heat and energy transfer, conduction, diffusion, and turbulence in plasma flows on all scales, in intergalactic, interstellar, and interplanetary media,

• magnetic-field generation through dynamo processes,

• magnetospheric dynamics,

• stellar activity and coronal dynamics, and

• space weather.

We have specifically identified four fields of study in the proposed Voyage 2050 White Papers that are linked by this common theme:

Astronomy from the UV to soft and hard X-ray wavelengths is a powerful tool to explore different parameter regimes and examples of plasma environments on large scales based on a whole-system overview. They allow us to identify plasma shocks, thermal processes in accretion flows onto compact objects such as neutron stars and black holes, the large-scale geometry of matter, and even elemental and charge-state composition through the effective use of spectroscopy and polarimetry [Lebouteiller et al., 2019; Frontera et al., 2021; Guidorzi et al., 2021; Nicastro et al., 2021; Simionescu et al., 2021; Soffitta et al., 2021; Uttley et al., 2021].

Solar physics investigates processes on intermediate scales and links the physics explored by X-ray and UV astronomy to the local environment of the solar system. It allows us to obtain detailed spectroscopic imagery of plasma phenomena that we can interpret directly (Branduardi-Raymont et al., 2021; Erdélyi et al., 2021; Matthews et al., 2021; Peter et al., 2021).

Heliospheric, magnetospheric, and cometary physics studies of in-situ plasma phenomena such as the acceleration and heating of particles can be directly linked to larger structures with a good level of system-wide imagery and context (McCrea et al., 2019; Branduardi-Raymont et al., 2021; Erdélyi et al., 2021; Götz et al., 2021; Matthews et al., 2021; Peter et al., 2021; Rae et al., 2021; Roussos et al., 2021; Wimmer-Schweingruber et al., 2021).

In-situ plasma physics explores the near-Earth plasma environment (e.g., pristine and shocked solar wind, bow shock, and magnetosphere) and the plasma environment around other solar-system objects. It allows us to analyse the detailed fundamental interactions and the micro-scale processes that determine the large-scale evolution and thermodynamics of matter (Branduardi-Raymont et al., 2021; Götz et al., 2021; Rae et al., 2021; Retinò et al., 2021; Verscharen et al., 2021; Wimmer-Schweingruber et al., 2021).

Although these science topics appear quite diverse and each White Paper is being evaluated on its own merit by their respective Topical Team, we emphasise that all of them will mutually benefit from each other. For instance, the interpretation of X-ray and UV observations, reaching from compact objects to the largest structures in the Universe, depends on a solid understanding of fundamental in-situ plasma physics. On the other hand, the in-situ plasma community will benefit from cross-disciplinary collaboration with plasma astrophysicists by studying a much wider range of plasma conditions, some of which cannot be studied in situ. The same benefit applies likewise to the solar, heliospheric, magnetospheric, and cometary fields. Moreover, numerical modelling of plasmas in different regimes with shared physical understanding will underpin much of the developments in these fields.

The synopsis above and the related Voyage 2050 White Papers show that a common and coherent science theme has emerged from the Voyage 2050 process. This theme is linked by the common interest across large parts of the ESA-science community in exploring structures in the Universe that are shaped by plasma processes across a large variety of scales. This science theme spans across all of the installed Topical Teams. We are convinced that the adoption of this coherent science theme by ESA through a programme of missions addressing plasma physics in its many forms will make transformative advances in our knowledge of fundamental plasma physics questions and of a wide range of processes that are of greatest importance for our understanding of the Universe.

Data Availability Statement

The original contributions presented in the study are included in the article, further inquiries can be directed to the corresponding author.

Author Contributions

All authors contributed to the writing of this article.


DV is supported by Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Ernest Rutherford Fellowship ST/P003826/1. DV, GBR, and SAM are supported by STFC Consolidated Grant ST/S000240/1. RTW and IJR are supported by STFC Consolidated Grant ST/V006320/1. RE is grateful to STFC (grant number ST/M000826/1) and the Royal Society for enabling this research. RE also acknowledges the support received by the CAS President’s International Fellowship Initiative Grant No.2019VMA052 and the warm hospitality received at USTC of CAS, Hefei, where part of his contribution was made. SAM is also supported by UKSA Hinode Operations Continuation grant ST/S006532/1.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


Apart from minor edits, this article was submitted as a supporting statement in response to the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) long-term planning cycle Voyage 2050. We are grateful to ESA’s Directorate of Science, the Science Programme Committee (SPC), the Voyage 2050 Senior Committee, and the Voyage 2050 Topical Teams for the consideration of the community’s input.


1All Voyage 2050 White Papers are available online at


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Keywords: plasma, space physics, astrophysics, european space agency—ESA, voyage 2050

Citation: Verscharen D, Wicks RT, Branduardi-Raymont G, Erdélyi R, Frontera F, Götz C, Guidorzi C, Lebouteiller V, Matthews SA, Nicastro F, Rae IJ, Retinò A, Simionescu A, Soffitta P, Uttley P and Wimmer-Schweingruber RF (2021) The Plasma Universe: A Coherent Science Theme for Voyage 2050. Front. Astron. Space Sci. 8:651070. doi: 10.3389/fspas.2021.651070

Received: 08 January 2021; Accepted: 17 February 2021;
Published: 14 April 2021.

Edited by:

Vladislav Izmodenov, Space Research Institute (RAS), Russia

Reviewed by:

Jonathan Squire, University of Otago, New Zealand
John Charles Raymond, Center for Astrophysics, Harvard University, United States

Copyright © 2021 Verscharen, Wicks, Branduardi-Raymont, Erdélyi, Frontera, Götz, Guidorzi, Lebouteiller, Matthews, Nicastro, Rae, Retinò, Simionescu, Soffitta, Uttley and Wimmer-Schweingruber. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Daniel Verscharen,