If you haven’t seen the Aurora Borealis, better known as the Northern Lights, you’re missing out. This explosion of light and color dancing across the sky is truly one of the great wonders of the solar system. But where does this phenomenon come from? The answer may be a physical rule-breaker called magnetic reconnection. 

Until now, scientists have been a little unsure about where phenomena like the Northern Lights, solar flares, and the biggest explosions in our solar system, coronal mass ejections, were getting their energy from. However, a recent discovery has more closely linked them to something an astrophysical rule-breaker called magnetic reconnection. But first, a little background on the Northern Lights.

Aurora Borealis

The rippling curtain of light owes its beauty to the collision of gases in Earth’s atmosphere with charged particles jettisoned into space by the sun. The color you see depends on the kind of gas particles. The most common color is a light green, courtesy of oxygen particles. But how does this fascinating occurrence get the energy it needs? In other words, what propels those particles from the sun all the way to our own atmosphere?

Magnetic Reconnection

When matter is heated by the sun into a plasmic state, the transition can cause the plasma to give off energy powerful enough to cause different magnetic fields to reconnect. These newly reconnected magnetic fields are then able to produce insane amounts of energy.

As observed by Professor Jan Egedal and her fellow researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the theory of magnetic reconnection was proved while also breaking the rules governing the behavior of plasma.

While magnetic reconnection still remains a mystery, a satellite was observed passing through the point where solar winds intersect with Earth’s magnetic field. When that occurred, electrons no longer followed the patterns of their magnetic field and instead whizzed off in another direction. Even though this observation confirmed the accepted theoretical descriptions of magnetic reconnection, it violated the “plasma frozen-in law” which states that electrons and magnetic fields must always move together.

Breaking the Rules

When this law is violated, it can have explosive consequences. “Even in Earth's moderate magnetic field, reconnection from an area just 10 kilometers across can change the motion of plasma thousands of kilometers distant,” says Egedal. Since its discovery in 1956, magnetic reconnection has been linked to black holes, pulsars, supernovas, and active galactic nuclei.

While much about magnetic reconnection is still unknown, hopefully, we will continue to uncover the answers to this fascinating phenomenon. Stay connected to the latest magnetic news here on our blog and be sure to check out our newest products in our online catalog.