Magnetic reconnection is a fundamental process occurring in a wide range of astrophysical, heliospheric and laboratory plasmas. This process alters magnetic topology and triggers rapid conversion of magnetic energy into thermal heating and nonthermal particle acceleration. Efforts to understand the physics of magnetic reconnection have been made across multiple disciplines using remote observations of solar flares and in-situ measurements of geomagnetic storms and substorms as well as laboratory and numerical experiments. This review focuses on the progress achieved with solar flare observations in which most reconnection-related signatures could be resolved in both space and time. The emphasis is on various observable emission features in the low solar atmosphere which manifest the coronal magnetic reconnection because these two regions are magnetically connected to each other. The research and application perspectives of solar magnetic reconnection are briefly discussed and compared with those in other plasma environments.
Magnetic reconnection is a fundamental process in highly conducting plasmas, during which the magnetic topology is rearranged, and the magnetic energy is rapidly converted to kinetic energy, thermal energy, and particle acceleration (e.g., Kulsrud 1998). This process can occur in various magnetized plasma settings in nature and the laboratory. The longest known example is solar flares, for which magnetic reconnection was proposed as a viable mechanism as early as 1946 (Giovanelli 1946). Both observational evidence and theoretical understanding of this idea have accumulated over the decades (see, for review, Priest & Forbes 2000, 2002; Cassak et al. 2008). Magnetic reconnection in the sun is also a likely contributor to the formation and ejection of coronal mass ejecta (e.g., Gosling et al. 1995; Antiochos et al. 1999) and to coronal heating (e.g., Cargill & Klimchuk 1997). Similar processes are expected to occur in astrophysical plasmas such as stellar chromospheres, coronae and other extreme astrophysical environments (Kulsrud 1995).
In the Earth's magnetosphere magnetic, reconnection occurs in response to driving by solar wind. It is believed to be responsible for the disturbances in Earth’s magnetosphere such as substorms (e.g., Angelopoulos et al. 2008; Lee et al. 2009) and magnetic storms (Paschmann 2008; Paschmann et al. 2013). Magnetic reconnection can also facilitate the entry of solar wind plasma and electromagnetic energy into the magnetosphere by either low- or high-latitude magnetopause reconnection (e.g., Paschmann et al. 1979; Sonnerup et al. 1981; Hwang 2015), and play a role in the formation of the auroral acceleration region (Atkinson 1978; Haerendel 1987). In the magnetotail lobes, proper magnetic reconnection converts energy stored there to the internal and kinetic energy of plasma. In controlled nuclear fusion, it is one of the mechanisms that prevents magnetic confinement of the fusion fuel. Dedicated reconnection experiments are now actively done to closely reproduce astrophysical plasmas in the laboratory (Yamada et al. 2010, 2014). All these efforts have led to the idea that the physics of magnetic reconnection should be studied with a wide range of settings. As a result, a comprehensive classification of magnetic reconnection has been developed in the form of phase diagrams (Ji & Daughton 2011; Daughton & Roytershteyn 2012; Cassak & Drake 2013). It now becomes obvious that a complete understanding of reconnection requires a multi-disciplinary approach.
The main issue in magnetic reconnection research is that observed reconnections in nature proceed much faster than predicted by the early magnetic reconnection theory. Sweet (1958) and Parker (1957) presented a two-dimensional (2D) model, in which a current sheet stretches along the boundary between oppositely directed magnetic fields, but the resulting rate of reconnection is much too slow to explain the explosive energy release during a solar flare, for instance. Petschek (1964) presented another framework in which the central current sheet is small and much less elongated, and this mechanism does operate fast enough to explain a flare that proceeds at typically a tenth or a hundredth of the Alfven speed. Some of the laboratory experiments have attempted to reproduce Petschek's mechanism without full success yet. It is likely that anomalous resistivity builds up at the current sheet to be much more enhanced when turbulence and kinetic effects are included. However, how collisionless kinetic effects come into effect and how often a sudden onset to fast reconnection initiates remain as challenging problems. For astrophysical applications, we should also consider how small-scale physics interplays with global dynamics and how magnetic reconnection behaves in extreme astrophysical environments such as star formation regions, accretion disks, jets, and interstellar and galactic dynamos.
Solar physicists have made an important contribution to the current understanding of magnetic reconnection in nature through observations of solar flares. A unique advantage of solar observations is that the magnetic structure and its dynamic evolution can be measured with sufficient spatial and temporal resolutions. Another important factor in solar research is that the so-called standard model for two-ribbon solar flares is available. As established by Carmichael (1964), Sturrock (1967), Hirayama (1974) and Kopp & Pneuman (1976), this model (also known as the CSHKP model) provides a unified paradigm which enables direct measurement of the coronal reconnection rate from observables. This has prompted a significant increase in research on solar magnetic reconnection during the last decade. This review will focus on the recent progress achieved with flare solar observations for physical understanding of magnetic reconnection in solar flares.
Magnetic reconnection occurs in a region of a current sheet, or neutral sheet, where magnetic fields of opposite polarity approach to merge. To illustrate, we plot, in Fig. 1, the magnetic field configuration and other physical parameters around the current sheet. In Fig. 1a, the separatrices are shown as dotted lines and the current sheet as the shaded slab centered at the X-point. The vectors
[Fig. 1.] The magnetic field configurations around the current sheet. (a) Magnetic field, velocity, and area vectors (thick arrows) are shown together with the lengths of the sides of the current sheet (thin arrows). The shaded region represents the cross section of the current sheet in the x-z plane, and the dotted lines are the separatrices. (b) The current sheet and flare ribbon are shown together to illustrate their relationship. (Credit: Lee et al. 2006)
In general the electric field
In collisionless plasma, the electric resistivity is infinitesimally small (
What solar astronomers can do instead is to utilize a simple relation that exists in the 2D configuration between the rate of reconnection and the motion of the chromospheric footpoints of the separatrices (Forbes & Priest 1984). Because the magnetic field lines swept through by the kernel motion are those connected to the diffusion region at the reconnection point, we can express the electric field at the X-line as
It is often stated without justification why equation (2) can replace equation (1). In the current sheet, the electric field is
The above-defined coronal reconnection rate is weighted by the magnetic field and is large for a large flux system. The quantity representing the reconnection efficiency regardless of dimension called the dimensionless magnetic reconnection rate is defined by the ratio of the inflow speed to the outflow speed from the diffusion region. Because the latter is given by the local Alfven speed,
According to the RCS geometry shown in Fig. 1a, this ratio is, in fact, simply the aspect ratio of the RCS, which in turn, corresponds to the definition of the reconnection rate
Another useful quantity is the magnetic energy release rate. Because both electric and magnetic fields are present, we can calculate the Poynting flux,
where ε is the total electromagnetic energy. To claim this quantity as the energy release rate in the current sheet, it should be that most of the incoming energy flux (
In this section we review the studies on magnetic reconnections using solar flare observations. Traditionally filtergrams from the Big Bear Solar Observatory (BBSO) have provided high quality H
The first task of finding evidence for the standard reconnection model was to verify whether the the quantity uB shows a temporal correlation with any high-energy flare radiations. As an earlier work in this line, Qiu et al. (2002) studied high-cadence and high-resolution H
The subsequent debate on the contradictory behaviors of ribbon motion to the standard 2D model was centered on how to interpret the motions parallel to the PIL, while in the standard model, we should see only the ribbon motion perpendicular to the nearest point in the PIL. For convenience, we call it simply parallel motion. Grigis & Benz (2005) studied RHESSI observations that exhibit continuous motions of double hard X-ray sources which can be regarded as footpoints of magnetic loops. It, however, moves parallel to the PIL, as opposed to the standard model. This means that the observed flare elements are not a modulation of the reconnection process but originate as this process progresses along an arcade of magnetic loops. Neither did the footpoint motion correlate with the hard X-ray flux to contradict the predictions of the standard reconnection model. Another new feature of footpoint motion was reported by Fletcher et al. (2004) in which groups of UV footpoints on TRACE images move as the flare progresses, which defines flare ‘ribbons’. This ribbon emission is spatially non-uniform, maybe even discrete. They tracked individual bright kernels within the flare ribbons and applied this to a flare observed by TRACE in the 1600 Å passband at 2-s cadence. In this event, the footpoints have an average speed of 15 km s−1, with a superposed random component, consistent with the footpoint magnetic field being anchored around the edges of granular cells. The peaks in UV brightness is temporally correlated with the peaks in the product of the footpoint speed with the coronal reconnection rate as calculated from equation (2). Even at H
While the dynamic behavior of flare ribbons should be the main source of information on the coronal magnetic reconnection, determining the dynamic properties turned out to be far from straightforward. In the simplest treatment, the coronal reconnection is assumed to occur on the X-line so that energetic particles precipitating along the field lines produce only a line-shaped ribbon in the chromosphere. The displacement and reshaping of this line should be all that needs to be measured. In reality, the actual ribbons appear in a more complicated form with a finite area, and its shape keeps changing with time in all directions. Asai et al. (2004) proposed to use only the leading edge of the expanding ribbon and the velocity component perpendicular to the local PIL for consistency with the standard theory. Jing et al. (2005) used an algorithm to compute a vector average of the velocities determined from the incremental change in area per unit time. Lee et al. (2006) used the center-of-mass location that appears to be more appropriate for isolated flare kernels. This helps avoid any peculiar velocities due to expansion or shrinking of the area that can be confused with the mean velocity. Fig. 2 shows the flare kernel at selected time intervals (left panel) and the locations of the centers of mass at multiple times as colored filled circles (right). Points concentrated within a narrow region signify that the ribbon is more or less stationary in that region, and the gaps between groups of concentrated points correspond to the locations where the ribbon speeds up under the enhanced magnetic flux reconnection, and thus, the ribbon motion is not uniform but rather stepwise. Fig. 3 shows the center-of-mass location of the ribbon (cross symbols) as a function of time together with solid guide lines showing the speed determined at selected time intervals. The first stepwise motion, for instance, occurs around 7:43:30 UT at which time the ribbon is advancing about 5 arc sec in ~20 s achieving a speed of ~160 km s−1 (see the solid guide lines indicating the speed). Other stepwise motions also incur high velocities ranging from 60 to 220 km s−1, much higher than the typically reported ribbon velocity which is a few tens of kilometers per second (Jing et al. 2005). Another fit to the average motion over the whole period of the flare activity leads to an overall speed of only ~18 km s−1 (shown by the thick guide line marked as tall). These stepwise motions do agree, in timing, with the multiple peaks of the hard X-rays, and led to the conclusion that the ribbon motion is faster than previously thought and highly intermittent in time and space.
[Fig.2.] Areas of flare kernels at four selected time intervals (left) and their time-stamped locations (right) determined from the high-cadence BBSO Hα blue-wing images during the 2002-Sep-09 flare (adapted from Lee et al. 2006).
[Fig.3.] The distance of the center-of-mass of the ribbon (symbols) as a function of time during the event on 2002/09/09. Five time intervals where the distance rapidly increases are marked with solid red guide lines along with the inferred speeds. Another fit to the overall motion in the entire period is also shown as a thick line for comparison (adapted from Lee et al. 2006).
Solar flare emissions often exhibit fine temporal structures, especially at hard X-ray and radio frequencies emitted by high energy electrons. This led to the idea that a flare as a whole is a superposition of numerous
[Fig.4.] Physical parameters of magnetic reconnection as functions of time in the 2002 September 9 flare. These two panels show the local magnetic field strength and ribbon velocity. The gray histogram in each panel shows the RHESSI count rate at 25-50 keV for reference (adapted from Lee et al. 2006a).
In the simplest form of the standard model, the reconnection occurs in the X-line, and in principle, its chromospheric counterpart should also be a line consisting of footpoints. In reality, a flare footpoint has a finite area which is changing in time. However, it was unclear whether the width implies the coronal reconnection occurs over a finite area (i.e., extended Y lines) or is simply due to the finite cooling time of the footpoint radiation. This issue did not receive much attention therefore. However, it turned out that the finite area of the coronal current sheet is an essential element in the reconnection theory. First, the pulsating current sheet model that explains the observed episodic time variations of the hard X-ray peaks is based on the interplay between the build-up of the current density due to anomalous resistivity and its relaxation due to the increased area of the current sheet. Second, the area of the reconnecting current sheet in the corona provides a way to determine the amount of energy released during the reconnection from the electromagnetic Poynting flux on the current sheet. An observational requirement is that the ribbon radiation should represent only the instantly illuminated chromospheric part connected to the coronal diffusion region. H
[Fig.6.] A time sequence of the RHESSI 50-100 keV images. The peak flux in each image is labeled, and the green contours show flux at levels of 0.018, 0.02, and 0.022 photons cm-2 s-1 arcsec-2. 6-12 keV image with yellow contours at levels of 50%, 70%, and 90% of its maximum flux. The white contours outline the TRACE 1600 A ribbons. (Credit: Liu et al. 2007)
[Fig.7.] The top panels show the RHESSI 25-50 keV hard X-ray (HXR) sources (contours) overlaid on OSPAN inverse Ha images (grayscale). The left panel shows the FP-HXR sources before the flare maximum and the right, the R-HXR source after the maximum phase. The symbol connected lines trace out the ribbon axis and are used to read out the local HXR intensity and magnetic field strengths from a co-aligned MDI magnetogram. The bottom panels show the spatial distribution of HXR intensity (red) in comparison with that of the magnetic field (green) and the square of the magnetic field (blue), shown as functions of the ribbon distance index defined in the maps in the upper panels.
[Fig.8.] Scenario A is the Standard 2D model that explains footpoint hard X-ray (FP-HXR) sources. Scenario B advocates the 2D model at the cost of introducing another mechanism for particle redistribution along the arcade axis to explain the ribbon-like hard X-ray (R-HXR). Scenario C refutes the 2D model by regarding the R-HXR as indicating an intrinsic magnetic field change in the corona along the dimension unspecified by the 2D model.
An important bi-product of the standard model is the particle acceleration because the strong electric field at the reconnection site will directly accelerate charged particles at least. There is no problem with the DC electric field in producing high enough particles because typical electric field strength is 10 V cm−1 along the X-line in two dimensions or a separator in three dimensions. This is not only much larger than the typical Dreicer field (of about 10−4 V cm−1) to overcome the Coulomb drag, but accelerates the charged particles to an energy high enough to account for the gamma rays and hard X-ray bursts as long as the field sustains a typical diameter of an active region. It is, however, conceivable that a charged particle would run only a small portion of the current sheet before deflected away from the CS, for which the size depends on the transverse magnetic component in the current sheet (Litvinenko 1996). What seems important from the observational viewpoint is whether the electric field deduced from the footpoint motions correlates with any particle acceleration features. Liu et al. (2008) investigated this problem using observations of 7 two-ribbon flares. The hard X-ray spectral index was calculated from the spectral data of RHESSI and Yohkoh/HXT, and the coronal reconnection rate, uB, was calculated from the H
[Fig.9.] Scatter plot of spectral index and electric field measured at each indexed location along the ribbon for all the time intervals for the aforementioned flare event. Data points and best fits in linear-log space (solid lines) by minimizing the χ2 error statistic for different time intervals are represented with different colors (adapted from Liu et al. 2008).
Although ribbon motions relative to the PIL provide a strong support for the standard reconnection model, they are only circumstantial. A cusp-shaped dimming region located above the post-flare arcade during the decay phase in EIT and a signature of chromospheric evaporation seen during the decay phase with the Coronal Diagnostic Spectrometer (CDS) onboard SOHO also provide a complementary view of the reconnection geometry and dynamics in the sun. It is, however, yet desirable to be able to image the reconnection site itself in the corona. The X-ray images obtained from the HXT and the SXT on Yohkoh have provided several features suggestive of a reconnection site in the corona including a hard X-ray source located above the soft X-ray loops (Sakao et al. 1992; Masuda et al. 1994; Bentley et al. 1994), cusp structures caused by either an X-type or a Y-type neutral line (Acton et al. 1992; Tsuneta et al. 1993; Doschek et al. 1995), and high-temperature plasma along the field lines mapping to the tip of the cusp (Tsuneta 1996). An X-ray piece of evidence for the formation of a large-scale current sheet in a flare was presented by Sui & Holman (2003) observed by the RHESSI on 2002 April 15. The hard X-ray features that they found would correspond to both ends of a Y-shaped magnetic configuration, with no features for the middle current sheet region itself. This is expected to some extent because the density there is not high enough to make it visible. Some of the cusp-shaped loops observed by Yohkoh have a linear, trunk-like feature which extends from the top of the cusp all the way down to the inner arch of the flare loop system. The hottest regions in the loop system, however, do not lie in the trunk feature but along the edges of the cusp formed by the outermost loop (Tsuneta 1996). Liu et al. (2010, 2011) reported the presence of a distinctly bright sharp EUV bright feature above the cusp-shaped flaring loop imaged during the flare rising phase with the EIT/SOHO, and identified it with the current sheet formed due to the stretch of a transequatorial loop system imaged during the flare rising phase with the EIT/SOHO. By identifying the current sheet with bright EUV features, we now have a comprehensive view of the reconnection geometry and dynamics in the solar corona as well as various reconnection signatures.
We have presented a review of magnetic reconnection studies from the perspective of solar physics, while other progress in understanding magnetic reconnection has occurred in space physics and laboratory experiments as well. A brief comparison of solar research results with those in the latter fields would be appropriate. Recently, the magnetic reconnection process in the Earth’s magnetosphere was studied with the data from the Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms (THEMIS). The outstanding results include the orientation, velocity, and structure of a reconnection region, electron diffusion signature, and asymmetric magnetic reconnection in the dayside Earth magnetosphere as well as a moving dipolarization front after a substorm in the night side (e.g., Angelopoulos et al. 2008; Paschmann et al. 2013). It was then realized that the thickness of the current sheet is of the order of the ion gyroradius typically 100-200 km in the magnetosphere and 1000-2000 km in the magnetotail. In this case, the reconnection dynamics cannot be described by the conventional MHD theory of reconnection, and the two-fluid and kinetic approach should be used. NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission is designed to address these required measurement capabilities, and science support for the mission is underway (Hesse et al. 2014).
Magnetic reconnection has also been studied experimentally in well-controlled, 2D laboratory plasma. For instance, an early result from the Magnetic Reconnection Experiment (MRX) at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) was found to be both qualitatively and quantitatively consistent with the generalized Sweet-Parker model with the effective resistivity significantly enhanced over its classical values in the collisionless limit (Ji et al. 1999). Since then, more institutes participate in this type experiment to explore astrophysical problems in the laboratory. The latest result from the MRX team shows that 50% of the magnetic energy is converted to particle energy, of which two thirds are transferred to ions and the rest goes to electrons (Yamada et al. 2014). This can be regarded as an important step toward resolving one of the most important problems in magnetic reconnection physics.
Both space-borne and laboratory experiments can utilize in-situ measurements of local plasma flows and magnetic field change to directly address the kinetic physics of magnetic reconnections that are not accessible with solar observations. However, solar research has several advantages and merits of its own. First, solar magnetic reconnection can adequately be addressed with the MHD approximation as described in Section 2. Although not covered in this paper, many MHD-based theoretical concepts and tools have been developed to address the 3D nature of solar magnetic reconnection (Priest & Forbes 2002; Hesse et al. 2005). Second, the sun's proximity allows us to resolve the magnetic structure and its dynamic evolution through remote observations. Magnetic reconnection can be explored in other astrophysical settings such as stellar flares and star forming regions; however, spatially resolved observations are available only for the sun. Finally, the direct measurement of the coronal reconnection rate is envisioned under the standard model for two ribbon flares, as reviewed in Section 3. This has prompted numerous empirical approaches to understand solar magnetic reconnection.
In addition to its general contribution to this multi-disciplinary science, solar research has its own goals as follows : (1) understanding how solar magnetic reconnection proceeds helps to explain not only flare energy release but also coronal heating and coronal mass ejecta. (2) By investigating the patterns of solar magnetic reconnection, we can learn how reconnection in large systems is connected to small structures such as multiple X-lines, plasmoids and plasma turbulence. (3) Solar patrol observations provide an opportunity to determine how impulsive and rapid reconnection develops in relatively quiescent plasmas. Especially, the ability to predict the onset of magnetic reconnection in nature is important in the context of the sun-earth connection because they affect the near earth environment. Currently, even higher quality solar data are accumulated provided by the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA), magnetograms from Helioseismic, and the Magnetic Imager (HMI) onboard the Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO) which is replacing SoHO. With the ever-increasing imaging capabilities of solar instruments, solar magnetic reconnection will continue to be one of the most active research areas of astrophysics that pursues fundamental research in coordination with space plasma physics and laboratory plasma experiments.