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Magnetic reconnection as an erosion mechanism for magnetic switchbacks

AuthorSuen, G.~H.~H.; Owen, C.~J.; Verscharen, D.; Horbury, T.~S.; Louarn, P.; De Marco, R.;
KeywordsParker Data Used; Solar wind; Sun: heliosphere; plasmas; magnetic reconnection; Physics - Space Physics; Astrophysics - Solar and Stellar Astrophysics; Physics - Plasma Physics
AbstractContext. Magnetic switchbacks are localised polarity reversals in the radial component of the heliospheric magnetic field. Observations from Parker Solar Probe (PSP) have shown that they are a prevalent feature of the near-Sun solar wind. However, observations of switchbacks at 1 au and beyond are less frequent, suggesting that these structures evolve and potentially erode as they propagate away from the Sun. The specific mechanisms at play have not been identified thus far. \ Aims: We search for magnetic switchbacks undergoing magnetic reconnection, characterise them, and evaluate the viability of reconnection as a possible channel for their erosion. \ Methods: We analysed magnetic field and plasma data from the Magnetometer and Solar Wind Analyser instruments aboard Solar Orbiter collected between 10 August and 30 August 2021. During this period, the spacecraft was 0.6-0.7 au from the Sun. Using hodographs and Wal\ en analysis methods, we tested for rotational discontinuities (RDs) in the magnetic field and reconnection-associated outflows at the boundaries of the identified switchback structures. \ Results: We identified three instances of reconnection occurring at the trailing edge of magnetic switchbacks, with properties that are consistent with existing models of reconnection in the solar wind. Based on these observations, we propose a scenario through which reconnection can erode a switchback and we estimated the timescales for these occurrences. For our events, the erosion timescales are much shorter than the expansion timescale. Thus, the complete erosion of all three observed switchbacks would occur well before they reach 1 au. Furthermore, we find that the spatial scale of these switchbacks would be considerably larger than is typically observed in the inner heliosphere if the onset of reconnection occurs close to the Sun. Our results suggest that the onset of reconnection must occur during transport in the solar wind in the cases we consider here. These results suggest that reconnection can contribute to the erosion of switchbacks and may explain the relative rarity of switchback observations at 1 au.
Year of Publication2023
Number of PagesA128
Date Publishedjul