Electron-scale dynamics of the diffusion region during symmetric magnetic reconnection in space

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Science  21 Dec 2018:
Vol. 362, Issue 6421, pp. 1391-1395
DOI: 10.1126/science.aat2998

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Reconnection in Earth's magnetotail

Magnetic fields in plasmas can rapidly rearrange themselves in a process known as magnetic reconnection, which releases energy and accelerates particles. Torbert et al. used the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission to probe a reconnection event in Earth's magnetotail—the region of plasma downstream from the planet as it moves through the solar wind. MMS has previously studied reconnection in the upstream magnetopause, but a different orbit was used to study the magnetotail, where the symmetry of the process is different. The authors measured plasma properties on scales of the electron dynamics, leading to insights that will apply in other regions where magnetic reconnection occurs.

Science, this issue p. 1391


Magnetic reconnection is an energy conversion process that occurs in many astrophysical contexts including Earth’s magnetosphere, where the process can be investigated in situ by spacecraft. On 11 July 2017, the four Magnetospheric Multiscale spacecraft encountered a reconnection site in Earth’s magnetotail, where reconnection involves symmetric inflow conditions. The electron-scale plasma measurements revealed (i) super-Alfvénic electron jets reaching 15,000 kilometers per second; (ii) electron meandering motion and acceleration by the electric field, producing multiple crescent-shaped structures in the velocity distributions; and (iii) the spatial dimensions of the electron diffusion region with an aspect ratio of 0.1 to 0.2, consistent with fast reconnection. The well-structured multiple layers of electron populations indicate that the dominant electron dynamics are mostly laminar, despite the presence of turbulence near the reconnection site.

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