Magnetic Reconnection in Extreme Astrophysical Environments
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- Uzdensky, D.A. Space Sci Rev (2011) 160: 45. doi:10.1007/s11214-011-9744-5
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Magnetic reconnection is a fundamental plasma physics process in which ideal-MHD’s frozen-in constraints are broken and the magnetic field topology is dramatically re-arranged, which often leads to a violent release of the free magnetic energy. Most of the magnetic reconnection research done to date has been motivated by the applications to systems such as the solar corona, Earth’s magnetosphere, and magnetic confinement devices for thermonuclear fusion. These environments have relatively low energy densities and the plasma is adequately described as a mixture of equal numbers of electrons and ions and where the dissipated magnetic energy always stays with the plasma. In contrast, in this paper I would like to introduce a different, new direction of research—reconnection in high energy density radiative plasmas, in which photons play as important a role as electrons and ions; in particular, in which radiation pressure and radiative cooling become dominant factors in the pressure and energy balance. This research is motivated in part by rapid theoretical and experimental advances in High Energy Density Physics, and in part by several important problems in modern high-energy astrophysics. I first discuss some astrophysical examples of high-energy-density reconnection and then identify the key physical processes that distinguish them from traditional reconnection. Among the most important of these processes are: special-relativistic effects; radiative effects (radiative cooling, radiation pressure, and radiative resistivity); and, at the most extreme end—QED effects, including pair creation. The most notable among the astrophysical applications are situations involving magnetar-strength fields (1014–1015 G, exceeding the quantum critical field B∗≃4×1013 G). The most important examples are giant flares in soft gamma repeaters (SGRs) and magnetic models of the central engines and relativistic jets of Gamma Ray Bursts (GRBs). The magnetic energy density in these environments is so high that, when it is suddenly released, the plasma is heated to ultra-relativistic temperatures. As a result, electron-positron pairs are created in copious quantities, dressing the reconnection layer in an optically thick pair coat, thereby trapping the photons. The plasma pressure inside the layer is then dominated by the combined radiation and pair pressure. At the same time, the timescale for radiation diffusion across the layer may, under some conditions, still be shorter than the global (along the layer) Alfvén transit time, and hence radiative cooling starts to dominate the thermodynamics of the problem. The reconnection problem then becomes essentially a radiative transfer problem. In addition, the high pair density makes the reconnection layer highly collisional, independent of the upstream plasma density, and hence radiative resistive MHD applies. The presence of all these processes calls for a substantial revision of our traditional physical picture of reconnection when applied to these environments and thus opens a new frontier in reconnection research.