The magnetic activity of the Sun has a high impact on Earth. As illustrated in Figure 1, large coronal eruptions like flares and coronal mass ejections can influence the Earth’s magnetosphere where they trigger magnetic storms and cause aurorae. These coronal eruptions have also harmful effects like disturbances in communication systems, damages on satellites, power cutoffs, and unshielded astronauts are in danger of life-threatening radiation.1 The origin of these eruptive phenomena in the solar corona is related to the coronal magnetic field as magnetic forces dominate over other forces (like pressure gradient and gravity) in the corona. The magnetic field, created by the solar dynamo, couples the solar interior with the Sun’s surface and atmosphere. Reliable high accuracy magnetic field measurements are only available in the photosphere. These measurements, called vector magnetograms, provide the magnetic field vector in the photosphere.
To get insights regarding the structure of the coronal magnetic field we have to compute 3D magnetic field models, which use the measured photospheric magnetic field as the boundary condition. This procedure is often called “extrapolation of the coronal magnetic field from the photosphere”. In the solar corona the thermal conductivity is much higher parallel than perpendicular to the field so that field lines may become visible by the emission at appropriate temperatures. This makes in some sense magnetic field lines visible and allows us to test coronal magnetic field models. In such tests 2D projection of the computed 3D magnetic field lines are compared with plasma loops seen in coronal images. This mainly qualitative comparison cannot guarantee that the computed coronal magnetic field model and derived quantities, like the magnetic energy, are accurate. Coronal magnetic field lines which are in reasonable agreement with coronal images are, however, more likely to reproduce the true nature of the coronal magnetic field.
To model the coronal magnetic field we have to introduce some assumptions. It is therefore necessary to get some a priori insights regarding the physics of the solar corona. An important quantity is the plasma value, a dimensionless number which is defined as the ratio between the plasma pressure and the magnetic pressure,force-free field approximation and for static configurations it is defined as:
Current free (potential) fields are the simplest assumption for the coronal magnetic field. The line-of-sight (LOS) photospheric magnetic field which is routinely measured with magnetographs are used as boundary conditions to solve the Laplace equation for the scalar potential ,et al. (1969) for details on the potential-field source-surface (PFSS) model. Figure 3 shows such a potential-field source-surface model for May 2001 from Wiegelmann and Solanki (2004).
Potential fields are popular due to their mathematical simplicity and provide a first coarse view of the magnetic structure in the solar corona. They cannot, however, be used to model the magnetic field in active regions precisely, because they do not contain free magnetic energy to drive eruptions. Further, the transverse photospheric magnetic field computed from the potential-field assumption usually does not agree with measurements and the resulting potential field lines do deviate from coronal loop observations. For example, a comparison of global potential fields with TRACE images by Schrijver et al. (2005) and with stereoscopically-reconstructed loops by Sandman et al. (2009) showed large deviations between potential magnetic field lines and coronal loops.
The condition can be rewritten as
Please note that high plasma configurations are not necessarily a contradiction to the force-free condition (see Neukirch, 2005, for details). If the plasma pressure is constant or the pressure gradient is compensated by the gravity force , where is the mass density and the gravity potential of the Sun) a high- configuration can still be consistent with a vanishing Lorentz force of the magnetic field. In this sense a low plasma value is a sufficient, but not a necessary criterion for the force-free assumption. In the generic case, however, high plasma configurations will not be force-free and the approach of the force-free field is limited to the upper chromosphere and the corona (up to about ).
Living Rev. Solar Phys. 9, (2012), 5
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