For the past 50 years, scientists have attempted to understand how the process of magnetic reconnection works. The explosive process is able to provide the world with enough energy to power it for nearly 20,000 years by triggering solar flares. But how exactly does it work? After years of studying the explosive process, it looks like the team at NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission (MMS) has come up with a new theory that can possibly help us understand how the most explosive type of magnetic reconnection, also known as fast reconnection, happens and how it can occur at a consistent speed.
Magnetic reconnection typically happens in plasma, which is an energetic, fluid-like material that is exquisitely sensitive to magnetic fields. All throughout the universe, the plasmas are consistently converting magnetic energy into heat and acceleration. Scientists are well aware of how most plasmas work - but there is one variant that has left them puzzled for years, and this is known as fast reconnection.
Project scientist for MMS and research scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Barbara Giles explained, "We have known for a while that fast reconnection happens at a certain rate that seems to be pretty constant," she said. "But what really drives that rate has been a mystery - until now." Their research has shown that fast reconnection happens in collisionless plasmas. This plasma's particles are far enough apart from each other that the individual ones do not collide with other particles. When magnetic reconnection occurs, the active plasmas all stop moving at once. So when the individual's plasma starts moving again, they cause an unstable energy vacuum to happen - and this is where reconnection happens. The energy surrounding the vacuum eventually causes the vacuum to collapse, leading to an immediate release of energy at a predictable rate.
The NASA theory can explain how explosions occur on the Sun, and it also helps better forecast the geomagnetic storms and solar flares that can affect our planet. "Ultimately, if we can understand how magnetic reconnection operates, then we can better predict events that can impact us on Earth, like geomagnetic storms and solar flares," Giles said. "And if we can understand how reconnection is initiated, it will also help energy research because researchers could better control magnetic fields in fusion devices."