“We are inside this plasma,
and plasma is inside everything. It is incandescent
in the sun, and I am curious to know if you
are able to stop orbiting yourself around it even for a second.” -Marieta Maglas
The phenomenon of solar flares has been understood qualitatively but not quantitatively for a long time. The Sun’s magnetic field confines its plasma into thin sheets of electric current, and when the field changes, the lines split and reconnect, causing the plasma to be expelled at tremendous rates. This same physics underlies solar flares, Earth’s aurora, laboratory plasmas and possibly even gamma ray bursts!
But when you do the calculations, the reconnection timescales and speeds are too slow to account for what we see. For the past few years, a new idea came about that had a hope of explaining things: the plasmoid instability idea. For the first time, a team of physicists has worked out both theoretically and experimentally how this works, and they’ve nailed it. Most excitingly, the results don’t look like what a great many have expected for a long time!