The heart of space weather observed in action

Jul 15, 2013
An overlap of data from two NASA spacecraft confirms a sighting of magnetic reconnection on the sun, a process of realigning magnetic fields that lies at the heart of space weather. The teal image, from SDO, shows the shape of magnetic field lines in the sun's atmosphere. The RHESSI data is in orange. Credit: NASA/SDO/RHESSI/Goddard

Two NASA spacecraft have provided the most comprehensive movie ever of a mysterious process at the heart of all explosions on the sun: magnetic reconnection. Magnetic reconnection happens when magnetic field lines come together, break apart and then exchange partners, snapping into new positions and releasing a jolt of magnetic energy. This process lies at the heart of giant explosions on the sun, such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which can fling radiation and particles across the solar system.

Scientists want to better understand this process so they can provide advance warning of such space weather, which can affect satellites near Earth and interfere with . One reason why it's so hard to study is that magnetic reconnection can't be witnessed directly, because magnetic fields are invisible. Instead, scientists use a combination of computer modeling and a scant sampling of observations around magnetic reconnection events to attempt to understand what's going on.

"The community is still trying to understand how magnetic reconnection causes flares," said Yang Su, a solar scientist at the University of Graz in Austria. "We have so many pieces of evidence, but the picture is not yet complete."

Now Su has added a new piece of visual evidence. When searching through observations from NASA's SDO, short for Solar Dynamics Observatory, Su saw something particularly hard to pull from the data: direct images of magnetic reconnection as it was happening on the sun. Su and his colleagues reported on these results in Nature Physics on July 14, 2013. While a few tantalizing images of reconnection have been seen before, this paper shows the first comprehensive set of data that can be used to constrain and improve models of this fundamental process on the sun.

Magnetic field lines, themselves, are indeed invisible, but they naturally force charged particles – the material, called plasma, which makes up the sun – to course along their length. Space telescopes can see that material appearing as bright lines looping and arcing through the sun's atmosphere, and so map out the presence of magnetic field lines. Looking at a series of images, Su saw two bundles of field lines move toward each other, meet briefly to form what appeared to be an "X" and then shoot apart with one set of lines and its attendant particles leaping into space and one set falling back down onto the sun.

When magnetic fields lines on the sun come together they can realign into a new configuration. The process, called magnetic reconnection, can produce tremendous amounts of energy, powering gigantic explosions in the sun's atmosphere. Credit: NASA Goddard

"It can often be hard to tell what's truly happening in three dimensions from these images, since the pictures themselves are two-dimensional," said Gordon Holman, a solar scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., who is also an author on the paper. "But if you look long enough and compare data from other instruments, you can make a good case for what's going on."

To confirm what they were seeing the scientist turned to a second NASA spacecraft, the Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager, known as RHESSI. RHESSI collects spectrograms, a kind of data that can show where exceptionally hot material is present in any given event on the sun. RHESSI showed hot pockets of solar material forming above and below the reconnection point, an established signature of such an event. By combining the SDO and RHESSI data, the scientists were able to describe the process of what they were seeing, largely confirming previous models and theories, while revealing new, three-dimensional aspects of the process.

Below the surface of the sun, the charged material, the plasma, is flowing. Magnetic loops emerge from this flow and set up areas of positive magnetic poles lying next to negative ones. The loops arc up over the sun from one polarity to the other. As the sun's material continues to flow under the surface, the positive and negative poles slip past each other – not unlike tectonic plates on Earth slipping past each other – though on the sun, of course, the material is a hot gas, not hard rock. This causes the arcs above to grow, twist sideways and become more unstable. The very act of that slippage, or shear, puts more energy into the system, coiled and waiting to spring, like twisting up a rubber band before letting it loose. Eventually the lines in the arcs buckle inward, touch and reconnect, while giving off a bright flash as the energy releases, sending radiation and energetic particles out into space.

In the SDO movies, light illuminates the arcade of loops as the reconnection process cascades along the length of them. Bright loops lean into the reconnection region from each side. As the reconfigure, new loops are ejected downward, while a rope of plasma separates and surges upward. In certain cases, the rope achieves escape velocity and becomes a coronal mass ejection, sending billions of tons of matter out into space.

"This is the first time we've seen the entire, detailed structure of this process, because of the high quality data from SDO," Su said. "It supports the whole picture of reconnection, with visual evidence."

Su said that with these images they could make estimates as to how quickly the magnetic fields reconnected, as well as how much material goes into the process and how much comes out. Such information can be plugged into magnetic reconnection models to help refine theories about the process.

Scientists want to learn more about magnetic reconnection not just because of what it does on the sun, but because it is a universal process, which occurs near Earth, inside its magnetic environment, the magnetosphere, and in stars everywhere. Because it's so difficult to see this process on the sun, and it's also a difficult process to re-create and study in the lab, researchers plan to take a closer look at magnetic reconnection in space. To study magnetic reconnection in even more detail NASA will launch the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission in late 2014. MMS is made of four spacecraft that will pass right through events where they happen in Earth's magnetosphere. By bringing multiple spacecraft – SDO, RHESSI, MMS and others – to bear on the problem, scientists will be able to better understand the very start of the we experience on Earth.

These results were obtained under a joint research project of the European Commission and NASA called HESPE, short for High Energy Solar Physics Data in Europe.

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HannesAlfven
1 / 5 (9) Jul 15, 2013
I find the journalism we see on this construct -- which consistently fails to acknowledge any existence of any controversy associated with magnetic reconnection -- to be misleading for students who might be entering into this subject. When students are not told of controversies associated with the subjects they are being taught, society undermines the very process of science.

Such behavior also raises important red flags for the public, who is well within their right to question the meaning of consensus that derives from a selective recounting of the history of an idea to students.

When students are taught how to do the problem-solving, without being informed of the origins and critiques for those approaches, their education does not prepare them to question these models. If we bury grad students in this problem-solving, and leave the reasons for doubt out, we potentially create the very agreement (in our educational institutions) which the public then interprets as consensus.
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (8) Jul 15, 2013
"Magnetic reconnection is pseudo-science." Alfven

And the pseudoscience is reaching new heights of complete nonsense.
HannesAlfven
1 / 5 (7) Jul 16, 2013
It appears that physorg readers have been so convinced that magnetic field LINES are actual physical objects -- AS OPPOSED TO MATHEMATICAL CONSTRUCTS THAT MATHEMATICIANS USE TO DEFINE THE SHAPE OF MAGNETIC FIELDS -- that they appear to object to the very notion that students of physics should even be informed of the point.

The caption on the above image ...

"When magnetic fields lines on the sun come together they can realign into a new configuration. The process, called magnetic reconnection, can produce tremendous amounts of energy, powering gigantic explosions in the sun's atmosphere."

... is rather curious because it implies that the LINES themselves are the movers and shakers. To simply pretend that there is no problem here for students of physics casts the students as victims in efforts by theorists to explain away the observation of an inverse temperature anomaly at the sun's surface -- which remains one of the most serious structural problems plaguing our solar models.
Protoplasmix
3 / 5 (2) Jul 16, 2013
...and it's also a difficult process to re-create and study in the lab,...

If you can't bring the star to the lab, bring the lab to the star...
By bringing multiple spacecraft – SDO, RHESSI, MMS and others – to bear on the problem, scientists will be able to better understand the very start of the space weather we experience on Earth.

MMS sounds awesome, and the coronal heating mystery looks less mysterious with each new bit of 'visual evidence'.
no fate
not rated yet Jul 17, 2013
"Scientists want to learn more about magnetic reconnection...."

Coronal loops are not exactly individual structures, the best analogy I can offer is that they are like separate strands of wool in a woven blanket. They are plasma that enters a field of magnetic flux, the loop forms because the plasma forms its own flux rope inside the field (exactly as observed in earths field as well). When two of these ropes come together it is two fields interacting inside the main flux field, hence the illusion of a "reconnection". On the sun the interaction causes a massive rapid polarity reversal, this causes the energy release detected as a flare and is why a portion of the matter is accelerated through and away from the corona while the rest falls back in the direction it came.

Coronal heating is, as another article on this site accurately assessed, magnetic excitation of the particles that enter it. That article is just unsure of the magnetic mechanism at work.