PerspectiveAstronomy

Connecting the dots in magnetic reconnection

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Science  03 Jun 2016:
Vol. 352, Issue 6290, pp. 1176-1177
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf7269

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Summary

That plasmas don't mix well is a key aspect of this magnetized, highly conducting fourth state of matter. Magnetized plasmas are ubiquitous in our solar system, in astrophysics, and in the lab. The same fundamental process is common to solar flares, coronal mass ejections, the solar wind, the magnetospheres of Earth and other planets, comet tails, magnetars, and tokamaks. We know that plasma regions with embedded magnetic fields actually do spontaneously mix via the process of magnetic reconnection, with explosive results—we see the effects of particle acceleration in the aurora and solar energetic particles. On page 1189 of this issue, Burch et al. (1) present results that help shed light on the process of magnetic reconnection. They have probed a magnetic reconnection site in Earth's magnetosphere using a constellation of four spacecraft in close proximity, with unprecedentedly fast electron measurements to reveal what triggers reconnection and the vital role that electrons play on the small scale.