The tiny physics behind immense cosmic eruptions

The tiny physics behind immense cosmic eruptions

Zack Savitsky writes:

During fleeting fits, the sun occasionally hurls a colossal amount of energy into space. Called solar flares, these eruptions last for mere minutes, and they can trigger catastrophic blackouts and dazzling auroras on Earth. But our leading mathematical theories of how these flares work fail to predict the strength and speed of what we observe.

At the heart of these outbursts is a mechanism that converts magnetic energy into powerful blasts of light and particles. This transformation is catalyzed by a process called magnetic reconnection, in which colliding magnetic fields break and instantly realign, slingshotting material into the cosmos. In addition to powering solar flares, reconnection may power the speedy, high-energy particles ejected by exploding stars, the glow of jets from feasting black holes, and the constant wind blown by the sun.

Despite the phenomenon’s ubiquity, scientists have struggled to understand how it works so efficiently. A recent theory proposes that when it comes to solving the mysteries of magnetic reconnection, tiny physics plays a big role. In particular, it explains why some reconnection events are so stupefyingly fast — and why the strongest seem to occur at a characteristic speed. Understanding the microphysical details of reconnection could help researchers build better models of these energetic eruptions and make sense of cosmic tantrums.

“So far, this is the best theory I can see,” said Hantao Ji, a plasma physicist at Princeton University who was not involved in the study. “It’s a big achievement.” [Continue reading…]

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