Magnetic reconnection, the topological rearrangement of magnetic field, underlies a huge range of explosive and other plasma phenomena at all scales in the universe. It is also ubiquitous in magnetized laboratory plasmas. Its ubiquity, perhaps second to no other plasma phenomenon, is matched by the scientific challenge of its understanding.
The proposed Magnetic Reconnection Device (MRD) will be a multi-user, multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional instrument that will open up new physics regimes for controlled experimental study of magnetic reconnection, regimes that are otherwise unavailable in a controlled laboratory setting. MRD will allow access to dimensionless physics parameters orders of magnitude beyond that presently obtained in dedicated reconnection experiments, increasing the dimensionless electrical conductivity by two orders of magnitude and the dimensionless size by one order of magnitude. This introduces new physics, beyond the standard single-reconnection-site models, that is believed to be active and crucial in nearly all plasmas of interest (space, solar, astrophysical, fusion). The instrument will allow study of the major open questions in reconnection physics: Why is reconnection so fast? When do multiple reconnections occur and how do they affect the reconnection rate? How does partial ionization affect reconnection? How do 3D geometries alter reconnection? What causes the onset of reconnection? How does reconnection accelerate particles to high energy?
Progress in these questions is impeded in other venues: in space observations by the small number of in-situ measurements, in solar and astrophysical observations by the limited spatial resolution of remote sensors, in fusion lab plasmas by limited detector accessibility, and in dedicated reconnection experiments by limitations in dimensionless physics parameters. MRD avoids all these limitations, offering a new instrument designed to discover new insights in reconnection physics.
The interdisciplinarity of this project lies in the marriage of expertise from the areas where is magnetic reconnection is known to occur. That is in the areas spanning a wide variety of spatial scales from astrophysics, to solar physics, to magnetospheric physics, and down to laboratory plasma (fusion physics) scales. Undergraduate plasma physics programs will also be enriched by the availability to do research on the MRD at such institutions as Princeton University, and Swarthmore and Wheaton colleges.