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Turbulence causes solar flares to break rules of physics

by CIFAR Jun 3 / 13

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Image above: NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of the X1.2 class solar flare on May 14, 2013. Credit: NASA/SDO

A widely accepted principle in physics called flux-freezing says that magnetic lines of force travel fluidly like strands of thread, never breaking.

But solar flares—sudden and intense eruptions of charged particles and magnetic energy from the sun—sometimes break this principle; their magnetic lines of force behave in unpredictable ways, breaking apart and reconnecting again. This phenomenon has puzzled scientists.

Now, a team of researchers including Associate Alexander Szalay (Johns Hopkins University) has found an explanation. Using complex computer models to simulate what happens under various conditions to charged particles in solar flares, they found that turbulence in a flare can cause the magnetic field lines to behave randomly, spreading out unpredictably instead of flowing in an orderly manner. Their findings were published in the journal Nature.

The study was a collaborative effort between experts in astrophysics, engineering, data management and computer science. To do their simulations, the team used high-performance computers with original mathematical formulas and cutting-edge techniques for handling a massive amount of data.

The findings from the study are ground-breaking because they finally provide a compelling explanation for a phenomenon that has mystified astrophysicists. This research leads to a better understanding of solar flares and other eruptions from the sun, which has been a concern for scientists because of their dangerous implications for astronauts, communication satellites, and power grids on Earth.

This study was funded by the National Science Foundation, Johns Hopkins’ Institute for Data Intensive Engineering and Science, Microsoft Research, and the National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada.