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Solar Magnets

July 16, 2013

An article was published in Nature Physics this week about the magical process of magnetic reconnection. This is a really cool topic because we believe that solar magnetism is responsible for explosions on the surface of the sun that cause, what is amazingly referred to as, “space weather.” Magnetic field lines extend out from the sun’s surface and although they’re actually invisible, we can observe super hot plasma being forced along them in the form of huge arches. Sometimes these energetic hot-spots will blow up in fantastic fashion, causing solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CME’s) – which blast tons of radiation off into space at amazing speeds. The thing is, we still don’t know exactly how the magnetic field lines cause such huge explosions.


So anyway back in 2011 there was a big solar flare on the sun that was observed by two NASA spacecraft (named SDO and RHESSI). When Yang Su was analyzing the data he realized that they had captured a magnetic reconnection event – something that has rarely been done before. Magnetic reconnection occurs when two magnetic field lines come very close to each other and sort of “cross over” – causing them to connect. When this occurs, the two will snap apart very fast and become two new field lines with new directions, and this causes a massive release of energy. Su believes this energetic release may contribute to the formation of solar flares.

This video summarizes the findings quite nicely, and it also has pretty pictures:

To sum up, this information is good for scientists because it not only allows us to better understand the natural phenomena that occur on our own sun (and all other stars), but because solar flares and CME’s are annoying to humans. They can interrupt radio communications and negatively affect satellites, so it would be nice if we had better means of predicting when they might occur and how bad they will be. Aside from that, it’s just pretty awesome to learn more about sunsplosions 🙂


From → Physics, SPACE

  1. patricknygren permalink

    So do they think all flares and CMEs involve this magnetic reconnection phenomenon in some fashion, or just a subset of them?

    • To be honest it’s not clear to me if they believe 100% of solar flares and CME’s are caused by this precise phenomenon of magnetic reconnection, but it is certainly accepted that magnetism in general is the driving force behind these explosions. How exactly it might be controlling them is still under investigation, but this study has helped a lot by adding more pieces to the puzzle!

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