Tongues, bottles, and disconnected loops: The opening and closing of the interplanetary magnetic field

David J. McComas

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24 Scopus citations


For years the field of Space Physics has had a problem, a really big problem for it occurs on the largest spatial scales in Space Physics ‐ across the entire region under the Sun's influence, the heliosphere. The problem is that the Sun appears to keep opening new magnetic fields into interplanetary space with no obvious way to close them back off again. This state of affairs, without some method for closing the open interplanetary magnetic field (IMF), would lead to an ever growing IMF magnitude in interplanetary space ‐ a catastrophe that is clearly not observed. Figure 1 displays a composite picture of the Sun's outermost atmosphere or corona from 30 June 1973. The outer portion was taken in ordinary white light from the ground during a solar eclipse. The superposed soft X‐ray image of the denser, near‐Sun corona was taken from Skylab on the same day. The structure evident in the images is a consequence of the solar magnetic field that permeates the corona; more and less populated magnetic fields are mapped out as density structures in these images. Coronal holes are low‐density regions where the magnetic fields open out into interplanetary space; a large coronal hole is displayed as the dark region near the top of Figure 1. In contrast, bright loop‐like structures indicate closed field regions on the Sun that contain high‐density plasma. The centers of helmet streamers (closed field loops overlaid by nearly radial high density streamer structures), such as those seen extending outwards to the left and right sides in Figure 1, map out to large reversals of the magnetic field or current sheets in interplanetary space. The solar wind flow from streamers is slower and higher density than it is from coronal holes [e.g., Borrini et al., 1981]. Coronagraph and soft X‐ray observations over the past several decades have shown that the solar corona is highly dynamic with open and closed regions evolving over time scales as short as minutes and as long as the 22‐year solar cycle.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)603-608
Number of pages6
JournalReviews of Geophysics
Issue number1 S
StatePublished - Jul 1995

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geophysics


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