Research Article

Electron-scale measurements of magnetic reconnection in space

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Science  03 Jun 2016:
Vol. 352, Issue 6290, aaf2939
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf2939

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Probing magnetic reconnection in space

Magnetic reconnection occurs when the magnetic field permeating a conductive plasma rapidly rearranges itself, releasing energy and accelerating particles. Reconnection is important in a wide variety of physical systems, but the details of how it occurs are poorly understood. Burch et al. used NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale mission to probe the plasma properties within a reconnection event in Earth's magnetosphere (see the Perspective by Coates). They find that the process is driven by the electron-scale dynamics. The results will aid our understanding of magnetized plasmas, including those in fusion reactors, the solar atmosphere, solar wind, and the magnetospheres of Earth and other planets.

Science, this issue p. 10.1126/science.aaf2939; see also p. 1176

Structured Abstract


Magnetic reconnection is a physical process occurring in plasmas in which magnetic energy is explosively converted into heat and kinetic energy. The effects of reconnection—such as solar flares, coronal mass ejections, magnetospheric substorms and auroras, and astrophysical plasma jets—have been studied theoretically, modeled with computer simulations, and observed in space. However, the electron-scale kinetic physics, which controls how magnetic field lines break and reconnect, has up to now eluded observation.


To advance understanding of magnetic reconnection with a definitive experiment in space, NASA developed and launched the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission in March 2015. Flying in a tightly controlled tetrahedral formation, the MMS spacecraft can sample the magnetopause, where the interplanetary and geomagnetic fields reconnect, and make detailed measurements of the plasma environment and the electric and magnetic fields in the reconnection region. Because the reconnection dissipation region at the magnetopause is thin (a few kilometers) and moves rapidly back and forth across the spacecraft (10 to 100 km/s), high-resolution measurements are needed to capture the microphysics of reconnection. The most critical measurements are of the three-dimensional electron distributions, which must be made every 30 ms, or 100 times the fastest rate previously available.


On 16 October 2015, the MMS tetrahedron encountered a reconnection site on the dayside magnetopause and observed (i) the conversion of magnetic energy to particle kinetic energy; (ii) the intense current and electric field that causes the dissipation of magnetic energy; (iii) crescent-shaped electron velocity distributions that carry the current; and (iv) changes in magnetic topology. The crescent-shaped features in the velocity distributions (left side of the figure) are the result of demagnetization of solar wind electrons as they flow into the reconnection site, and their acceleration and deflection by an outward-pointing electric field that is set up at the magnetopause boundary by plasma density gradients. As they are deflected in these fields, the solar wind electrons mix in with magnetospheric electrons and are accelerated along a meandering path that straddles the boundary, picking up the energy released in annihilating the magnetic field. As evidence of the predicted interconnection of terrestrial and solar wind magnetic fields, the crescent-shaped velocity distributions are diverted along the newly connected magnetic field lines in a narrow layer just at the boundary. This diversion along the field is shown in the right side of the figure.


MMS has yielded insights into the microphysics underlying the reconnection between interplanetary and terrestrial magnetic fields. The persistence of the characteristic crescent shape in the electron distributions suggests that the kinetic processes causing magnetic field line reconnection are dominated by electron dynamics, which produces the electric fields and currents that dissipate magnetic energy. The primary evidence for this magnetic dissipation is the appearance of an electric field and a current that are parallel to one another and out of the plane of the figure. MMS has measured this electric field and current, and has identified the important role of electron dynamics in triggering magnetic reconnection.

Electron dynamics controls the reconnection between the terrestrial and solar magnetic fields.

The process of magnetic reconnection has been a long-standing mystery. With fast particle measurements, NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission has measured how electron dynamics controls magnetic reconnection. The data in the circles show electrons with velocities from 0 to 104 km/s carrying current out of the page on the left side of the X-line and then flowing upward and downward along the reconnected magnetic field on the right side. The most intense fluxes are red and the least intense are blue. The plot in the center shows magnetic field lines and out-of-plane currents derived from a numerical plasma simulation using the parameters observed by MMS.


Magnetic reconnection is a fundamental physical process in plasmas whereby stored magnetic energy is converted into heat and kinetic energy of charged particles. Reconnection occurs in many astrophysical plasma environments and in laboratory plasmas. Using measurements with very high time resolution, NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission has found direct evidence for electron demagnetization and acceleration at sites along the sunward boundary of Earth’s magnetosphere where the interplanetary magnetic field reconnects with the terrestrial magnetic field. We have (i) observed the conversion of magnetic energy to particle energy; (ii) measured the electric field and current, which together cause the dissipation of magnetic energy; and (iii) identified the electron population that carries the current as a result of demagnetization and acceleration within the reconnection diffusion/dissipation region.

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