Space Plasma Physics

Artist's impression of the Cluster quartet. (c) ESA
Artist's impression of the Cluster quartet. (c) ESA

The Space Plasma Physics group at MSSL is a leading, internationally recognised research group studying the physical interaction between the Earth and the Sun and the fundamental physics of space plasmas. The group has a history of producing instrumentation for, and analysing data from, international space exploration missions in collaboration with scientists around the world.

The group is heavily involved in the current Cluster mission and the proposed Solar Orbiter mission. Much of our research involves exploiting data from the Cluster mission, in conjunction with other missions and facilities. We also provide operational support and data processing for the Cluster and Double Star missions and the Cluster Active Archive. We have a number of PhD opportunities for students to study some of the many aspects of space plasmas.

Details of our mission involvement, research and upcoming projects can all be found on this site.

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MSSL Space Plasma News

MSSL Space Plasma Physics researchers celebrated by Royal Astronomical Society

We would like to offer our warmest congratulations to Professor Chris Owen and Dr. Zhonghua Yao, recipients of two prestigious awards from the Royal Astronomical Society. Prof. Owen will give the 2017 “James Dungey Lecture” and Dr. Yao was awarded the “Winton Capital Award” for research by a Post Doctoral Fellow in a UK institution whose career has shown the most promising development. More...

Dr. Licia Ray joins the MSSL Space Plasma Physics Group

We welcome Dr Licia Ray who has recently joined the MSSL Space Plasmas More...

MSSL at the 27th Cluster Workshop in Bled

 Prof. Andrew Fazakerley and Dr. Colin Forsyth attended the 27th Cluster Workshop, organised by ESA in Bled, Slovenia. The workshop gives Cluster scientists (including former MSSL scientists) the opportunity to come together and discuss new science results as well as the current status and future plans for the Cluster mission, which has now been operating in space for 17 years. More...

Cluster-MAARBLE-Van Allen Probes Workshop 2014

Prof. Andrew Fazakerley, Drs. Colin Forsyth and Dimitry Pokhotelov and students Kirthika Mohan and Ali Varsani all attended the 24th Cluster Workshop, entitled "Geospace Revisited" and held in conjunction with the Van Allen Probes and MAARBLE communities. The workshop took place at the Rodos Palace hotel on the greek island of Rhodes. More...

SWA EAS Sensor Makes Appearance on the BBC's 'Sky at Night'

The Solar Orbiter SWA EAS sensor was exhibited by Andrew Coates during the BBC's 'Sky at Night' program on May 10th 2015.  Although the program concentrated on results from the Venus Express mission, it was recorded at UCL/MSSL and featured some of the wider aspects of MSSL's activities.  More...

SWA instruments on Display on Solar Orbiter STM Spacecraft

On 13th March 2015 Airbus Stevenage invited the UK Instrument PI's and the national press to view the Structural and Thermal Model of the Solar Orbiter Spacecraft, which has just been completed with the installation of the heatshield.  The STM will now go off for testing in Germany. 

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MSSL Space Plasma Science Nuggets

Artist's impression of the Swarm spacecraft. Copyright: ESA/AOES Medialab

Measuring the currents that power the aurora

The interaction between charged particles flowing from the Sun with the magnetic field of the Earth drives enormous electrical currents in space. At any time, currents of around 1 million Amps can be flowing into and out of the upper atmosphere of the Earth, driven by the Sun-Earth connection. These currents close by flowing through the ionosphere, a charged layer of our atmosphere that extends upwards from around 80 km altitude, and thus are an important part of the connection between the atmosphere and space. More...

This image was created using data from the Relativistic Electron-Proton Telescopes on NASA's twin Van Allen Probes. It shows the emergence of a new third transient radiation belt. The new belt is seen as the middle orange and red arc of the three seen on each side of the Earth. Image Credit: APL, NASA

Effects of ULF waves on the Earth’s radiation belts

Relativistic particles with energies of up to few Megaelectron Volts are trapped by the Earth’s main magnetic field in the regions known as Van Allen radiation belts. The intense radiation environment imposes danger for satellite operations and needs to be forecasted and modelled using numerical simulations and data assimilation. Electromagnetic ultra low frequency (ULF) oscillations in the range of 150-600 s periods, produced by the interaction between solar wind and the Earth’s magnetosphere, play a substantial role in the acceleration, transport and loss of radiation belt particles. Properties of ULF waves need to analysed to improve the modelling of radiation belts. More...

Artist's impression of the Cluster quartet. (c) ESA

Substructures within a Dipolarization Front Revealed by High-temporal Resolution Cluster Observations

A Dipolarization Front (DF) is usually considered as the leading edge boundary of a reconnection outflow in the magnetotail, and is characterised by a dramatic magnetic field enhancement, typically on Bz component in GSM coordinates. This Bz ramp usually lasts for a few seconds, which is comparable to the spin period of a Cluster or a THEMIS spacecraft. More...

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...

Page last modified on 16 aug 11 12:20