When the magnetic field lines on the sun snap apart and violently reconnect, they can release enormous amounts of energy that trigger geomagnetic storms. Those storms can disrupt cell phone service, damage satellites and blackout power grids. But how this process, known as magnetic reconnection, transforms magnetic energy into explosive particle energy remains a major unsolved problem in plasma astrophysics that PPPL scientists are addressing.
A better understanding of geomagnetic storms could lead to advanced warning of the disturbances and an improved ability to cope with them. Researchers could shut down sensitive instruments on communications satellites, for example, to protect the instruments from harm.
This research is part of the work being conducted in the PS&T Department using sophisticated devices known as the Magnetic Reconnection Experiment (MRX) and the Facility for Laboratory Reconnection Experiment (FLARE), which the Laboratory is installing. PS&T scientists also collaborate with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on missions such as the Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission (MMS), which studies reconnection using instruments on four spacecraft flying in formation.