Stochastic electron acceleration during spontaneous turbulent reconnection in a strong shock wave

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Science  27 Feb 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6225, pp. 974-978
DOI: 10.1126/science.1260168

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Shocking! Particle accelerators in space

The acceleration of charged particles to high energies has been a major mystery, with a number of competing theories based on plasma physics. Many include the concept of turbulence, but with different roles. For example, shock-based theories emphasize the importance of turbulence developed from an unstable shock layer, whereas turbulent reconnection theories emphasize interactions of multiple reconnection sites. Matsumoto et al. present results of a large particle-in-cell simulation and examine how electrons are accelerated in the transition layer of a fast nonrelativistic shock (see the Perspective by Ji and Zweibel). Surprisingly, they find that when the shock is strong enough, charged particles (electrons in this case) are efficiently accelerated by turbulent reconnection within a turbulent shock layer containing multiscale structures.

Science, this issue p. 974; see also p. 944


Explosive phenomena such as supernova remnant shocks and solar flares have demonstrated evidence for the production of relativistic particles. Interest has therefore been renewed in collisionless shock waves and magnetic reconnection as a means to achieve such energies. Although ions can be energized during such phenomena, the relativistic energy of the electrons remains a puzzle for theory. We present supercomputer simulations showing that efficient electron energization can occur during turbulent magnetic reconnection arising from a strong collisionless shock. Upstream electrons undergo first-order Fermi acceleration by colliding with reconnection jets and magnetic islands, giving rise to a nonthermal relativistic population downstream. These results shed new light on magnetic reconnection as an agent of energy dissipation and particle acceleration in strong shock waves.

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