On Solving the Coronal Heating Problem
The question of what heats the solar corona remains one of the most important problems in astrophysics. Finding a definitive solution involves a number of challenging steps, beginning with an identification of the energy source and ending with a prediction of observable quantities that can be compared directly with actual observations. Critical intermediate steps include realistic modeling of both the energy release process (the conversion of magnetic stress energy or wave energy into heat) and the response of the plasma to the heating. A variety of difficult issues must be addressed: highly disparate spatial scales, physical connections between the corona and lower atmosphere, complex microphysics, and variability and dynamics. Nearly all of the coronal heating mechanisms that have been proposed produce heating that is impulsive from the perspective of elemental magnetic flux strands. It is this perspective that must be adopted to understand how the plasma responds and radiates. In our opinion, the most promising explanation offered so far is Parker's idea of nanoflares occurring in magnetic fields that become tangled by turbulent convection. Exciting new developments include the identification of the “secondary instability” as the likely mechanism of energy release and the demonstration that impulsive heating in sub-resolution strands can explain certain observed properties of coronal loops that are otherwise very difficult to understand. Whatever the detailed mechanism of energy release, it is clear that some form of magnetic reconnection must be occurring at significant altitudes in the corona (above the magnetic carpet), so that the tangling does not increase indefinitely. This article outlines the key elements of a comprehensive strategy for solving the coronal heating problem and warns of obstacles that must be overcome along the way.
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