Magnetosphere, Ionosphere and Solar-Terrestrial

Latest news

2021 Astronomy Grants

The closing date for the 2021 Astronomy Grants Round is 4th March 2021. Submissions are accepted from now. The Astronomy Guidelines for Applicants have been revised and can be found via the links below (the PDF with the full guidance is available under the ‘who can apply’ section on both pages):

Applicants should ensure they have read the guidelines in detail and contact the office with any queries ahead of submission.

Key points or revisions from the 2020 guidelines have been briefly summarised below for information:

  • Page Limits – The page limit per project has been simplified and is no longer based on a requested FTE calculation.
  • Applicant/Project FTE – There has been a change to the upper limit for requested applicant FTE (25%, not including PI management time). The guidance for total FTE requests per project has also been updated and must be strictly adhered to.
  • Outreach Projects – Clarification on the page limit for outreach projects/outreach funding.
  • Pathways to Impact – UKRI removed the requirement to submit a pathways to impact plan in March 2020; however applicants should still consider impact as part of their case for support (see guidelines for further information).
  • Publications Table – Updates to the information required in the publications table.

New groups submitting their first consolidated grant proposal or those considering a consortium proposal are advised to inform the office ahead of submitting to the closing date. If you have any queries please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

2020 Space Census

MIST members are invited to submit to the 2020 Space Census!

The 2020 Space Census is the first national survey of the UK space workforce. It is a 5-10 minute anonymous online demographic survey of individuals for anyone working in the UK space sector in any capacity. The results will be used to improve what it’s like to work in the sector, to tackle discrimination, and to make the sector more attractive to new recruits.

More information about the Census, along with answers to commonly asked questions, can be found here.

The UK Space Agency’s press release about the Census can be found here.

STFC Policy Internship Scheme now open

This year has proved the critical importance of science having a voice within Parliament. But how does scientific evidence come to the attention of policy makers? If you are a STFC-funded PhD student, you can experience this first-hand through our Policy Internship Scheme, which has just opened for applications for 2020/21. During these three-month placements, students are hosted either at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) or the Government Office for Science (GO Science).

POST is an independent office of the Houses of Parliament which provides impartial evidence reviews on topical scientific issues to MPs and Peers. Interns at POST will research, draft, edit and publish a briefing paper summarising the evidence base on an important or emerging scientific issue. GO Science works to ensure that Government policies and decisions are informed by the best scientific evidence and strategic long-term thinking. Placements at GO Science are likely to involve undertaking research, drafting briefing notes and background papers, and organising workshops and meetings.

The scheme offers a unique opportunity to experience the heart of UK policy making and to explore careers within the science-policy interface. The placements are fully funded and successful applicants will receive a three-month extension to their final PhD deadline.

For full information and to see case studies of previous interns, please see our website. The closing date is 10 September 2020 at 16.00.

Applied Sciences special issue: Dynamical processes in space plasmas


Applied Sciences is to publish a special issue on the topic of dynamical processes in space plasmas which is being guest edited by Georgious Nicolaou. Submissions are welcome until 31 March 2021, and submission instructions for authors can be found on the journal website. For general questions, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

MIST elections in 2020

The election for the next MIST councillors opens today, and will run until 23:59 on 31 July 2020. The candidates are Michaela Mooney, Matt Owens, and Jasmine Kaur Sandhu. 

If you are subscribed to this mailing list you should receive a bespoke link which will let you vote on the MIST website, which will be sent by This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. If you don’t receive this link, please check your junk folder! The candidates’ platforms are on the voting platform, and also reproduced below for your convenience. 

Michaela Mooney

I’m a final year PhD student at MSSL standing for MIST Council as a student representative. During my PhD, I’ve been actively engaged in the department as a Student Rep in the Staff Student Consultation Committee and in the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee. I’m an active member of the MIST research community through proposals for RAS Discussion meetings and NAM sessions on geomagnetic activity. 

My main goals as a MIST Council representative would be to:

  • lobby funding bodies to reduce the impact of the pandemic on PhD students.
  • facilitate the organisation of virtual conferences and careers days to ensure that students continue to have opportunities to present research and access to careers information.
  • support good practises in equality, diversity and inclusion within the MIST community.

My key priority would be to limit the impact of the pandemic on students and ensure equality of opportunities.

Matt Owens

Now, more than ever, it’s vital our community address its diversity problems. If anyone is standing for MIST council from an underrepresented demographic, I’d encourage you to vote for them; MIST needs their experience and insight. If not, I’ll seek to ensure MIST council continues to promote equality of opportunity and diversity in science.

MIST’s primary role is to represent our solar-terrestrial science within the wider discipline. I’m predominantly a heliospheric scientist, but keep a toe in the solar physics community. E.g., I’ve served in editorial capacities for both JGR and Solar Physics, and have a good deal of experience with both NERC and STFC funding. As such, I’d hope to see MIST working closely with UKSP, as we have a lot of common interest. I am also keen that the MIST community coordinate to make the most of the industrial and operational forecasting opportunities that are open to it. Finally, I’m a very recent convert to open science. I would seek to increase the prevalence of research code publication and use of community tools within our field, for reasons of both efficiency and reproducibility.

Jasmine Kaur Sandhu

I am a post-doctoral research associate at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, UCL, with a research focus on inner magnetospheric physics. During my time as a Council member I have led a number of initiatives, primarily the MIST Student’s Corner, the MIST Nugget Series, and the MIST online seminar series. If elected, I will continue to focus on supporting early career researchers in ways that promote diversity of both science and the scientists within our community. This will include developing a set of up-to-date, comprehensive, and informative resources on funding opportunities available to early career researchers for travel funding and fellowships. This will be supported by a mentor-like scheme for assistance and guidance on applications.

Nuggets of MIST science, summarising recent MIST papers in a bitesize format.

If you would like to submit a nugget, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and we will arrange a slot for you in the schedule. Nuggets should be 100–300 words long and include a figure/animation. Please get in touch!

Design and Optimization of a High-Time-Resolution Magnetic Plasma Analyzer (MPA)

By Benjamin Criton (Mullard Space Science Laboratory, UCL)

Cutting-edge solar wind investigations require in-situ instruments with increasing time and energy resolution to study the important small-scale plasma processes. These processes play key roles in the overall behaviour of space plasmas. They are believed to be the origin of the heating and acceleration of the solar wind. Unfortunately, these processes happen on very short timescales. To measure them, virtually all flown plasma analyzers use an approach to select particle energies, achieved by an electric field. Faraday cups use a high-pass energy selection whilst electrostatic analysers (ESAs) a band-pass selection. This functioning requires to sweep the energy range to build the entire energy spectrum of the measured plasma. Even though Faraday cups are comparatively faster than ESAs, these two instrument categories make relatively slow measurements: 4 s for Cluster HIA, 1 s for Solar Orbiter PAS or 0.22 s for Parker Solar Probe SPC.

In this article, we conceptualize and design a plasma analyzer answering this rising demand for high time and energy resolution. Our new design, based on the velocity-dependent deflection of charged particles in a homogeneous magnetic field, does not require any time-dependent energy selection, making measurements much faster and reliable compared to traditional analyzers. Particles hit a position-sensitive sensor at different positions according to their velocity and mass-per-charge ratio. In one acquisition step, each incoming charged plasma particle is detected at a specific position in the sensor plane. We then translate the counts per position into an estimation of the velocity distribution function (VDF). Our study shows that this measurement principle achieves a 1D measurement of proton and alpha-particle VDFs under realistic solar wind conditions in 5 ms (200 Hz) with a velocity resolution of 2.8 %. This time cadence is two orders of magnitudes faster than the sampling frequency required to measure processes of order the proton gyro-radius at a heliocentric distance of 1 au and about 40 times faster than Parker Solar Probe SPC’s native cadence. Furthermore, the velocity/energy resolution only depends on the physical instrument parameters (aperture size, pixel size and magnetic field strength) that can be adjusted to best address the trade-off between time and energy resolution.

A schematic showing the instrument geometry from viewpoints.

Fig. 1 shows the conceptual geometry of the instrument. This new instrument concept is able to unveil the fast variations of the ion VDFs in one look direction.

Please see the paper for full details: 

Criton B, Nicolaou G, Verscharen D. (2020). Design and Optimization of a High-Time-Resolution Magnetic Plasma Analyzer (MPA). Applied Sciences. 10(23):8483. https://doi.org/10.3390/app10238483

Evaluating the performance of a plasma analyzer for a space weather monitor mission concept

By Georgios Nicolaou (Mullard Space Science Laboratory/UCL; Southwest Research Institute)

Georgios Nicolaou et al. developed a forward model of an electrostatic analyzer response which simulates observations of solar wind protons with their velocities following the classic Maxwell distribution function. This paper studies the observations of extreme space weather features such as, fast ICMEs and fast solar wind streams, but also the observations of a typical background solar wind. The model takes into account the limited sampling and resolution of the instrument. The analysis of the modeled observations derives the plasma parameters from the statistical moments of the observed velocity distribution functions. This is a classic novel analysis method, which is appropriate for space weather missions as it can be applied onboard spacecraft and predict the solar wind plasma bulk parameters very fast, reducing the required telemetry and computational resources. The comparison between the analysis results and the input parameters identifies the accuracy of the specific method applied to the observations by the instrument. The authors address the limitation of the moments analysis and demonstrate how we can overcome these limitations by fitting the observations with distribution function models. The fitting analysis is demonstrated in observations of fast ICMEs (see Figure 1) and fast solar wind streams identified in ACE observations.

 Timeseries of plasma parameters, indicating the accuracy of the fitting analysis as a function of time.

Figure 1. Time series of (top) the plasma density, (middle) bulk speed, and (bottom) scalar temperature within a fast ICME recorded by ACE from 16 July 2000 01:00 to 17 July 2000 08:00. The color represents the accuracy with which the fitting analysis of the observations by our instrument derives the corresponding parameters.

Please see the paper for full details:

Nicolaou, G., Wicks, R. T., Rae, I. J., & Kataria, D. O. (2020). Evaluating the performance of a plasma analyzer for a space weather monitor mission concept. Space Weather, 18, e2020SW002559. Accepted Author Manuscript. https://doi.org/10.1029/2020SW002559

The Global Distribution of Ultra‐Low‐Frequency Waves in Jupiter's Magnetosphere

By Arthur Manners (Imperial College London)

A key component to an understanding of Jupiter’s magnetosphere is how energy and momentum are transported through the system; how are perturbations communicated to regions many thousands of Earth radii distant? In the terrestrial magnetosphere, magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) waves with frequencies in the ultra-low-frequency band (~1mHz – 1Hz) play a key role in communication throughout the system, in some cases causing the magnetospheric cavity to resonate at its natural frequencies. The Jovian magnetosphere also seems to exhibit these phenomena but limited in-situ data has prevented a fuller picture from emerging. To remedy this, we have searched the heritage magnetometer data from Galileo, Ulysses, Voyager 1 & 2 and Pioneer 10 & 11 for ULF waves. The large plasma density in the equatorial magnetodisk and comparatively rarefied high-latitude regions means the Alfvén speed is orders of magnitude lower in the disk than elsewhere, effectively confining waves to the centremost region of the magnetic field lines.

We focused our study to data where spacecraft traversed the magnetodisk and constructed a catalogue of large-amplitude ULF waves. We found several hundred events with periods spanning ~ 5 – 60 mins, with preferential periods at ~ 15 mins, ~ 30 mins and ~ 40 mins, consistent with case studies in the literature. The resultant distribution can be seen in Fig. 1. Regions close to the magnetopause at noon and along the dusk flank appear to host ULF waves most often, suggesting an external driver (Fig. 1a). However, the waves seem to be most powerful in the inner magnetosphere, close to the plasma torus, suggesting wave energy may accumulate in the region (Fig. 1b). Further study of the torus region is ongoing to further probe these findings. Overall, these results provide crucial information into large scale energy transport and pathways in Jupiter's complex magnetosphere, with significant implications for wider magnetospheric processes.

Equatorial projections of the ULF wave samples, illustrating spatial variations in occurrence.

Fig. 1: An equatorial-plane projection of: (a) the total time spacecraft spent in each bin; (b) the ULF bandpower averaged over the events in each bin; (c) the proportion of time spacecraft spent in each region where significant ULF activity was observed; (d) the same as (c) but for the subset of events where only a single significant period was observed. White bins signify where there are no available data, and gray bins signify regions where spacecraft visited but observed no events.

Please see the paper for full details:

Manners, H., & Masters, A. (2020). The global distribution of ultralow‐frequency waves in Jupiter's magnetosphere. Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics, 125, e2020JA028345. https://doi.org/10.1029/2020JA028345

Using Dimensionality Reduction and Clustering Techniques to Classify Space Plasma Regimes

By Mayur R. Bakrania (MSSL, UCL)

Particle populations in collisionless space plasma environments are traditionally characterised by their moments. Distribution functions, however, provide the full picture of the state of each plasma environment. These distribution functions are not easily classified by a small number of parameters. We apply dimensionality reduction and clustering methods to particle distributions in pitch angle and energy space to distinguish between the different plasma regions. Dimensionality reduction is a specific type of unsupervised learning in which data in high-dimensional space is transformed to a meaningful representation in lower dimensional space. This transformation allows complex datasets to be characterised by analysis techniques with much higher computational efficiency. We use the following steps:

  1. An autoencoder to compress the data by a factor of 10 from a high-dimensional representation.
  2. A Principal Component Algorithm to further compress the data to a three-dimensional representation.
  3. The mean shift algorithm to determine how many populations are present in the data using this three-dimensional representation.
  4. An agglomerative clustering algorithm to assign each data-point to one of the populations.

We use electron data from the magnetotail to test the effectiveness of our method. The magnetotail is traditionally divided into three different regions: the plasma sheet (PS), the plasma sheet boundary layer (PSBL), and the lobes. Starting with the ECLAT database with associated classifications based on the plasma parameters, we identify 8 distinct groups of distributions, that are dependent upon significantly more complex plasma and field dynamics. Fig. 1 shows the average electron differential energy flux distributions for each cluster. We see large differences in the average pitch angle/energy distributions. Each distribution differs by the: peak flux energy, peak flux value, or the pitch angle anisotropy. The lack of identical distributions shows mean shift has not overestimated the number of clusters. This novel technique reveals new information on the physical processes shaping magnetotail electron distributions, and has significant implications for analysing a wide range of plasma regimes.

A multi-panel plot showing the distributions in pitch angle and energy space for each cluster.

Fig. 1: Average electron differential energy flux distributions as a function of pitch angle and energy for each of the eight clusters (A–H) classified by the agglomerative clustering algorithm. Each cluster is assigned a magnetotail region (included in the sub-captions) based on our interpretation of their plasma and magnetic field parameters.

Please see the paper for full details:

M. R. Bakrania, Rae I. J., Walsh A. P., Verscharen D. and Smith A. W. (2020). Using Dimensionality Reduction and Clustering Techniques to Classify Space Plasma Regimes. Front. Astron. Space Sci. 7:593516. https://doi.org/10.3389/fspas.2020.593516

Polytropic Behavior of Solar Wind Protons Observed by Parker Solar Probe

by Georgios Nicolaou (MSSL, UCL)

The polytropic equation relates the density and temperature of a fluid through the polytropic index. The polytropic index is a crucial parameter in understanding the physical mechanisms acting on the fluid. In this study, we investigate the large time-scale and the short time-scale fluctuations of the plasma proton density and temperature in order to determine their polytropic index. The large time-scale fluctuations which are associated with the plasma expansion within the heliosphere, follow a polytropic model with a polytropic index ~5/3. The specific behavior is consistent with an adiabatic expanding plasma protons with three degrees of freedom. The radial profile of the density follows in general, the model for a spherical expansion with a constant radial speed (see Figure 1). However, the short time-scale fluctuations, which are associated with plasma turbulence, follow a polytropic model with a polytropic index ~2.7. Interestingly, the short time-scale polytropic index is found to be correlated with the interplanetary magnetic field. We discuss the possibly of a mechanism that supplies/retains energy from the plasma protons in these short time-scales, or a mechanism that restricts the effective degrees of freedom of the protons. We finally highlight the importance of future studies that examine the polytropic index along with the characteristics of the full 3D distributions of the plasma ions and electrons.

Plots showing how the proton density and proton temperature vary with radial distance.

Figure 1. Two-dimensional histograms of (top) the proton density and (bottom) the proton temperature as functions of the radial distance for time interval 1. The magenta line in the top panel shows the expected density for an expansion model with constant speed, n  r-2. In the lower panel, the magenta line shows the expected temperature of a polytropic radial expansion model with γ = 5/3 while the blue lines represent expansion models with γ = 2.7. The grey line illustrates the slope determined by Huang et al. 2020 for the parallel proton temperature of fast solar wind observed by SPC.

Please see the paper for full details:

Nicolaou, G., Livadiotis, G., Wicks, R. T., Verscharen, D., Maruca, B. A., (2020). Polytropic Behavior of Solar Wind Protons Observed by Parker Solar Probe. The Astrophysical Journal, 901, 1, https://doi.org/10.3847/1538-4357/abaaae.