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Solar eruptions, the largest known eruptions in the Solar System, result from a process called “magnetic reconnection” that occurs in the plasma. Plasma is a form of gas that is super hot, so its atoms energize and disintegrate, forming a soup of positively charged ions and negatively charged electrons that are exquisitely sensitive to magnetic fields. Reconnection occurs when the geometry of the magnetic field in the plasma is rearranged as a result of the field lines getting too close together. Say a new configuration, the field lines break and reconnect – thereby releasing some of the energy stored in the field as thermal and kinetic energy, causing particles to flow along the field lines.

Although rare on Earth, plasma is pervasive in the universe, and magnetic reconnection is known to occur at a variety of locations from around black holes to near-Earth space and on the surface of the Sun.

The type of reconnection that triggers solar flares involves “non-collision” plasma where, as the name implies, the particles are spread out so that they do not collide.

This process is particularly fast, and thus is known as “quick reconnection”.

As astrophysicist Dr. Barbara Giles of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland explained: “We’ve known for some time that rapid reconnection occurs at a certain rate that appears to be very constant.

“But what really drove that rate has remained a mystery until now.”

In their study, physicist Professor Yi Hsien Liu of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and colleagues on the NASA Magnetic Multiband Expedition proposed a theory to explain the consistent reconnection rate — which depends on a common magnetic phenomenon.

This phenomenon, the “Halle effect,” involves the interaction between magnetic fields and electric currents, and describes how charge carriers in a conductor such as a plasma can be affected by the presence of a magnetic field.

The Hall effect is used in household devices such as time-sensing sensors for anti-lock braking systems in vehicles, those that detect when a phone cover is closed, and even those that allow 3D printers to work.

According to the team, during rapid magnetic reconnection, ions and charged electrons in the plasma stop moving as a group and start moving individually.

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In their study, physicist Professor Yi Hsien Liu of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and colleagues on the NASA Magnetic Multiband Expedition proposed a theory to explain the consistent reconnection rate — which depends on a common magnetic phenomenon.

This phenomenon, the “Halle effect,” involves the interaction between magnetic fields and electric currents, and describes how charge carriers in a conductor such as a plasma can be affected by the presence of a magnetic field.

The Hall effect is used in household devices such as time-sensing sensors for anti-lock braking systems in vehicles, those that detect when a phone cover is closed, and even those that allow 3D printers to work.

According to the team, during rapid magnetic reconnection, ions and charged electrons in the plasma stop moving as a group and start moving individually.

This triggers the Hall effect, which creates an unstable energy vacuum at the reconnection point, which then collapses thanks to the pressure of magnetic fields and releases massive amounts of energy at a predictable rate.

Professor Liu, vice president of the MMS theory and modeling team, said: “We finally understand what makes this kind of magnetic reconnection so fast.

“Now we have a theory to fully explain it.”

NASA’s Multiple Magnetic Bands mission will test this theory in the coming years, using its four specially designed satellites that orbit the Earth in a tetrahedral formation to study reconnection, as it happens, at the highest resolution possible on Earth.

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This triggers the Hall effect, which creates an unstable energy vacuum at the reconnection point, which then collapses thanks to the pressure of magnetic fields and releases massive amounts of energy at a predictable rate.

Professor Liu, vice president of the MMS theory and modeling team, said: “We finally understand what makes this kind of magnetic reconnection so fast.

“Now we have a theory to fully explain it.”

NASA’s Multiple Magnetic Bands mission will test this theory in the coming years, using its four specially designed satellites that orbit the Earth in a tetrahedral formation to study reconnection, as it happens, at the highest resolution possible on Earth.

“Ultimately, if we can understand how magnetic reconnection works, we can better predict events that can affect us on Earth, such as geomagnetic storms and solar flares,” Dr. Giles said.

Energy from solar flares can disrupt transmissions in the upper atmosphere – thus eliminating, for example, signals from GPS satellites.

The astrophysicist added: “And if we can understand how reconnection starts, it will also help with energy research because researchers can better control magnetic fields in fusion devices.”

The full results of the study were published in the journal Communication Physics.