A pulsating orb of light, the sun produces unexpected bursts known as solar flares. These eruptions are sometimes causes for concern, as they’ve been hitherto unpredictable and can affect the Earth’s ionosphere, in turn interfering with humanity’s communications systems.
Since these flares travel at the speed of light, scientists want to pinpoint the events leading up to a solar flare. In Astrophysical Journal Letters, scientists on Tuesday published their observations of a December 2013 solar flare. The flare was recorded from three solar observatories in hopes of gaining a more comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon. Specifically, the research team noted the presence of an electromagnetic phenomenon called a current sheet.
Current sheets are a crucial component of solar flare models, so the existence of them only bolsters previous theories regarding solar flares, according to study author and astrophysicist James McAteer, of New Mexico State University.
“A current sheet is a very fast, very flat flow of electrically-charged material, defined in part by its extreme thinness compared to its length and width,” according to NASA. They “form when two oppositely-aligned magnetic fields come in close contact, creating very high magnetic pressure. Electric current flowing through this high-pressure area is squeezed, compressing it down to a very fast and thin sheet.”
The December 2013 solar flare was recorded by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, NASA’s Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hinode.
Thanks to the myriad of observatories, the researchers were able to observe the current sheet from more than one angle, measuring speed, temperature, density, and size. The instability of a current sheet’s magnetic field means the phenomenon is associated with magnetic reconnection.
According to study author Chunming Zhu, of New Mexico State University, magnetic reconnection occurs at the interface of oppositely-aligned magnetic fields. “The magnetic fields break and reconnect, leading to a transformation of the magnetic energy into heat and light, producing a solar flare,” Zhu said in a statement.
According to the researchers, the new study will help scientists refine solar flare models, and perhaps bolster prediction methods.
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