Space Plasma Research at UCL/MSSL

We are active in a number of areas of Space Plasmas Research, driven by our current and future participation in international space science missions for which we have, or will provide instrument hardware.  These include interests in the solar wind, and the terrestrial and planetary magnetospheres.  

Illustration of the proposed model for the polar hole origin of the fast solar wind by Tu & Marsch (2005)

The solar wind is a stream of plasma that flows radially outwards from the Sun, carrying with it the solar magnetic field. It is a supersonic plasma that is shocked by its encounters with bodies throughout the solar system. The source of the solar wind and its evolution through the solar system are areas of active research within the Space Plasma Physics group at MSSL.

We are the principal investigator institute for the Solar Wind Analyser (SWA) suite of sensors which are selected for inclusion on ESA’s Solar Orbiter Mission.  This mission, targeted for launch in January 2017, is a candidate to be the first component of ESA’s Cosmic Vision 2015-2025 Programme.  As well as leading the international SWA consortium, preparations for this mission at UCL/MSSL include the scientific analysis of current space-based observations of the solar wind, which acts to inform the design and prototyping work for the SWA Electron Analyser System (SWA/EAS), which will be built at UCL/MSSL.

We work in close collaboration with the UCL/MSSL Solar Physics group in order to better our understanding between phenomena on the Sun and their propagation into the solar system.

Artist's impression of plasma regions of the magnetosphere

We are engaged in the scientific study of the structures and dynamics of a number of regions found within and around the Earths magnetosphere, including the magnetospheric cusps, the magnetopause and the magnetotail. We are particularly interested in magnetic reconnection, and its manifestations at the magnetopause (for example through studies of Flux Transfer Events) and in the magnetotail (in particular the physics of magnetospheric substorm and related phenomena). In addition, recent work concentrates also on the auroral regions, and the physical processes which accelerate particles precipitating from the magnetosphere to the energies needed for auroral activation.

The principal tool we use for magnetospheric research is data from the ESA 4-spacecraft Cluster mission and China/ESA 2-spacecraft Double Star mission. UCL/MSSL is the Principal Investigator Institute for the Electron Spectrometer instrument (PEACE) flown on all 6 of these spacecraft.  We also use data from the Polar, Interball, Geotail, ACE, Wind and THEMIS satellites.  

Artist impression of Jupiter and its moons. Image courtesy John Spencer

Often in close collaboration with members of the UCL/MSSL Planetary Group, members of the Space Plasmas Group regularly participate in studies of the plasma environments (magnetospheres, ionospheres, plasma wakes, etc.) of other solar system bodies.

Our expertise in studying the plasma environment around the Earth and the abundance of data available allow us to study the similarities and differences between the different planetary systems throughout the solar system. Through these comparisons, we can further our understanding of the fundamental physics of plasmas. 

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MSSL Space Plasma Science Nuggets

Artists impression of particles in Earth's Van Allen belts. Courtesy NASA SVS

What effect do substorms have on the radiation belts?

The Van Allen radiation belts are a torus of high-energy charged particles trapped on magnetic field lines at the Earth. Consisting mainly of near-relativistic electrons, these belts stretch out from a few thousand kilometres altitude to around geosynchronous orbit and pose a very real hazard to satellites flying through or inhabiting this space. One of the mysteries of the radiation belts is how they get there - most of the plasma in the magnetosphere or coming off the Sun is at much lower energies. One theory is that dynamic events in the magnetosphere known as substorms, that also result in bright auroral displays, might energise particles in the magnetosphere or provide a mechanism by which particles might be accelerated to these exceptionally high energies. More...

(eft panels) false colour images, and (right) 3 second difference images from the FSMI and GILL ASIs for the three consecutive auroral bead onsets from (a) ~0503 UT, (b) ~0510 UT, and (c) ~0524 UT.

ULF Waves above the Nightside Auroral Oval during Substorm Onset

The first indication of substorm onset is a sudden brightening of one of the quiet arcs lying in the midnight sector of the oval, and an explosive auroral displays covering the entire night sky follows.  In space, this corresponds to a detonation that releases a huge amount of energy stored in the stretched night-time magnetic fields and charged particles. This chapter reviews historical ground-based observations of electromagnetic waves and their role in detonating the substorm, and highlights new research linking these electromagnetic waves explicitly to substorm onset itself. The chapter focuses on the properties of ultra-low frequency (ULF) electromagnetic waves that are seen in two-dimensional images of the aurora and discusses a wider range of physical processes that could be responsible for the azimuthally structured auroral forms along the substorm onset arc immediately before it explosively brightens.   More...

Launch of the first CaNoRock. Image courtesy: Kolbjorn Blix Dahle

Student Sounding Rockets to train the next generation of space scientists

The Canada-Norway Student Sounding Rocket (CaNoRock) program is a multi-national, multi-university collaboration to train undergraduate students in space science or engineering, and to recruit them into space-related graduate studies or industry. More...

An auroral substorm observed by the IMAGE FUV-WIC instrument. Courtesy: H. U. Frey/IMAGE/NASA

A New Technique for Determining Substorm Onsets and Phases from Indices of the Electrojet (SOPHIE)

Substorms are a fundamental mode of variability of the solar wind-magnetosphere-ionosphere system. Previous studies have shown that they can process over 1000 TJ of captured solar wind energy and, in so doing, divert magnetospheric currents through the ionoshpere. This diversion of currents results in a distinct signature in ground-based magnetometer measurements at auroral latitudes. In a new paper, Forsyth et al [2015] have developed a technique for identifying all parts of a substorm from this ground-magnetometer data. More...

Average UK thunder days (RTH;top) and lightning rates (RL; second). RL is shown in the remaining panels split by A to T or T to A current sheet crossings on 80 and 10 day intervals.

Lightning as a Space Weather Hazard

UK lightning rates previously have been shown to be influenced by large compressed regions of solar wind known as corotating interaction regions (CIRs). CIRs are often co-located with the heliospheric current sheet (HCS) at 1AU. A catalogue of all HCS crossings from 2000 to 2007 is computed using the change in the magnetic field direction. The average lightning rates (RL; from the UK MetOffice’s radio network) and average thunder days (RTH; from audio records) were then computed for 40 days either side of the HCS crossing. These results are shown in the top two rows of the figure. 13.5-and 27-day peaks in thunderstorm activity is observed corresponding to the regularity of HCS crossings of the Earth as they rotate around with the Sun. More...

Page last modified on 08 sep 11 09:26