Solar flares are powerful “explosions” in the Sun’s atmosphere, the corona. They are caused by a rapid release of the energy stored in the strong magnetic field of the corona – the magnetic field lines break in a process known as magnetic reconnection. This heats the gas to temperatures of tens of millions of degrees and creates beams of very high-energy charged particles. The particles and electromagnetic radiation from flares can have significant effects on the Earth and our space environment. Since a solar flare was observed for the first time in 1859, we have learnt a lot about these exciting events, but there are many puzzles remaining which we may begin to solve with the help of new data from space missions such as Parker Solar Probe and Solar Orbiter, as well as computer simulations.
Philippa Browning was interested in astronomy from an early age, partly inspired by the Apollo moon landings. She studied mathematics at Cambridge and then did a PhD on solar magnetic fields in St Andrews. After joining UMIST in Manchester as a lecturer – the first woman physics lecturer there – she is now a Professor in the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics at the University of Manchester. Her research is concerned with the interactions of plasma with magnetic fields, aiming to understand solar activity such as flares and why the solar corona is so hot, as well as working on the development of fusion as a future source of electrical power. She teaches undergraduate students physics and astronomy, and regularly talks about the Sun to a range of audiences. She is currently walking the Wales Coast Path, and also enjoys skiing, singing and playing the mandolin.
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