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Solar Flares  

Dana Longcope

A solar flare is a transient increase in solar brightness powered by the release of magnetic energy stored in the Sun’s corona. Flares are observed in all wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum. The released magnetic energy heats coronal plasma to temperatures exceeding ten million Kelvins, leading to a significant increase in solar brightness at X-ray and extreme ultraviolet wavelengths. The Sun’s overall brightness is normally low at these wavelengths, and a flare can increase it by two or more an orders of magnitude. The size of a given flare is traditionally characterized by its peak brightness in a soft X-ray wavelength. Flares occur with frequency inversely related to this measure of size, with those of greatest size occuring less than once per year. Images and light curves from different parts of the spectrum from many different flares have led to an accepted model framework for explaining the typical solar flare. According to this model, a sheet of electric current (a current sheet) is first formed in the corona, perhaps by a coronal mass ejection. Magnetic reconnection at this current sheet allows stored magnetic energy to be converted into bulk flow energy, heat, radiation, and a population of non-thermal electrons and ions. Some of this energy is transmitted downward to cooler layers, which are then evaporated (or ablated) upward to fill the coronal with hot dense plasma. Much of the flares bright emission comes from this newly heated plasma. Theoretical models have been proposed to describe each step in this process.