Earth’s magnetic field provides an invisible but crucial barrier that protects Earth from the solar wind—a stream of charged particles launched from the sun’s outer layers. The protective properties of the magnetic field can fail due to a process known as magnetic reconnection, which occurs when two opposing magnetic field lines break and reconnect with each other, dissipating massive amounts of energy and accelerating particles that threaten air traffic and satellite communication systems.

In this visualization, as the supersonic solar wind (yellow haze) flows around the Earth's magnetic field (blue wavy lines), it forms a highly turbulent boundary layer called the “magnetosheath” (yellow swirling area). A new research paper describes observations of small-scale magnetic reconnection within the magnetosheath, revealing important clues about heating in the sun's outer layers and elsewhere in the universe. Image credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Mary Pat Hrybyk-Keith (Click image to download hi-res version.)
In this visualization, as the supersonic solar wind (yellow haze) flows around the Earth's magnetic field (blue wavy lines), it forms a highly turbulent boundary layer called the “magnetosheath” (yellow swirling area). A new research paper describes observations of small-scale magnetic reconnection within the magnetosheath, revealing important clues about heating in the sun's outer layers and elsewhere in the universe. Image credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Mary Pat Hrybyk-Keith (Click image to download hi-res version.)

Just outside of Earth’s magnetic field, the solar wind’s onslaught of electrons and ionized gases creates a turbulent maelstrom of magnetic energy known as the magnetosheath. While magnetic reconnection has been well documented closer to Earth, physicists have sought to determine whether reconnection also happens in this turbulent zone.

A new research paper co-authored by University of Maryland Physics Professor James Drake suggests that the answer to this question is yes. The observation

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