Figure 1. Extending over many thousands of kilometers and with a mass of more than 100 billion tonnes, a twisting solar prominence protrudes out of the Sun’s corona in the bottom left of this image. Magnetic fields are heavily involved in the formation of these and other solar features, such as flares and coronal mass ejections. When these fields break apart and link up with each other, in a process called magnetic reconnection, such solar features can explosively release energy that can have consequences on Earth.Image is courtesy of SOHO/ESA and NASA.
The huge amounts of energy released from the relinking of magnetic fields in outer space are both mysterious and potentially destructive
James L. Burch, James F. Drake
Solar storms and other space events can release large magnetic storms that can interact with the magnetosphere around the Earth. When this happens, violent energetic discharges can impact the Earth and cause havoc with satellites and power grids. These events are caused by the crossing and reconnecting of magnetic field lines traveling in opposite directions, but exactly how this magnetic reconnection occurs has been under study for 50 years. Scientist have known about one method, but it’s too slow to account for the violent energy release. Burch and Drake discuss the history of this research, the newest theories for the mechanism behind magnetic reconnection, and an upcoming space mission to learn more.