Magnetosphere, Ionosphere and Solar-Terrestrial

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A Summary of the SWIMMR Kick-Off Meeting

The kick-off event for the Space Weather Innovation, Measurement, Modelling and Risk Study (one of the Wave 2 programmes of the UKRI Strategic Priorities Fund) took place in the Wolfson Library of the Royal Society on Tuesday November 26th. Seventy-five people attended the event, representing a range of academic institutions, as well as representatives from industry, government and public sector research establishments such as the UK Met Office. 

The morning session of the meeting consisted of five presentations, introducing the programme and its relevance to government, the Research Councils and the Met Office, as well as describing details of the potential calls. The presentations were as follows:

  •  Prof John Loughhead (Chief Scientific Advisor to BEIS) - Space Weather Innovation, Measurement, Modelling and Risk Programme (a governmental perspective). The slides from Prof John Loughhead's talk are available here.
  • Prof Chris Mutlow (Director of STFC RAL Space) - SWIMMR: Project funded by the Strategic Priorities Fund (a perspective from STFC).  The slides from Prof Chris Mutlow's talk are available here.
  • Jacky Wood (Head of Business Partnerships at NERC) - Space Weather Innovation, Measurement, Modelling and Risk (SWIMMR) - A NERC perspective.  The slides from Jacky Wood's talk are available here.
  • Dr. Ian McCrea (Senior Programme Manager for SWIMMR) -  SWIMMR: Space Weather Innovation, Measurement, Modelling and Risk: A wave 2 programme of the UKRI Strategic Priorities Fund.  The slides from Dr Ian McCrea's talk are available here.
  • Mark Gibbs (Head of Space Weather at the UK Met Office) - SWIMMR (Met Office perspective and detailed description of the calls.  The slides from Mark Gibb's talk are available here.

During the lunch break, the Announcement of Opportunity for the five NERC SWIMMR calls was issued on the NERC web site.  The afternoon therefore began with a brief introduction by Jacky Wood to the NERC Announcement of Opportunity, and the particular terms and conditions which it contained.

The remainder of the afternoon session was spent in a Question and Answer session in which attendees were able to ask questions to the speakers about the nature of the programme and the potential timing of future calls, and finally to an informal discussion session, in which participants gathered into groups to discuss the opportunities for funding which had been outlined. 

2019 RAS Council elections

As you may have seen, the nominations for RAS Council are currently open with a deadline of 29 November. MIST falls under the “G” (Geophysics) category and there are up to 3 councillor positions and one vice-president position available. MIST Council strongly encourages interested members of the MIST community to consider standing for election.
Clare Watt (University of Reading) has kindly volunteered to be a point of contact for the community for those who may wish to talk more about being on council and what it involves. Clare is a councillor on RAS Council, with her term due to complete in 2020, and This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Outcome of SSAP priority project review

From the MIST mailing list:

We are writing to convey the outcome of this year’s priority project “light touch” review, specifically with reference to those projects within the remit of SSAP. We would like to thank all the PIs that originally submitted ideas, and those who provided updates to their projects over the summer. SSAP strongly believe that all the projects submitted are underpinned by strong scientific drivers in the SSAP area.

The “light touch” review was undertaken with a unified approach by SSAP and AAP, considering factors that have led to priority project development (in STFC or other research councils) or new funding for priority projects (1/51 projects in the STFC remit) in the last 12 months. After careful discussion, it was agreed by SSAP and AAP not to select any project where the remit clearly overlaps with UKSA (i.e. space missions or TRL 4+), reflecting STFC’s focus on ground-based observations, science exploitation and TRL 0-3 development. Whilst in no way reflecting the excellence of the science, or community scientific wishes, this approach has resulted in some changes to the list of SSAP priority projects. However, now, unlike at the time of the original call, it is clear that such projects cannot move forwards without UKSA (financial) support, and such funds are already committed according to UKSA’s existing programme. SSAP remain strongly supportive of mission-led science in solar-system exploration, so SSAP have strongly recommended that the high-level discussions between UKSA and STFC continue with a view to supporting a clear joint priority projects call in future, more naturally suited to mission and bi-lateral opportunities.

The priority projects (and PIs) identified by SSAP for 2019/20 are:

  • Solar Atmospheric Modelling Suite (Tony Arber)
  • LARES1: Laboratory Analysis for Research into Extra-terrestrial Samples (Monica Grady)
  • EST: European Solar Telescope (Sarah Matthews)

SSAP requested STFC continue to work with all three projects to expand their community reach and continue to develop the business cases for future (new) funding opportunities. In addition, SSAP have requested that STFC explore ways in which the concept of two projects—“ViCE: Virtual Centres of Excellence Programme / MSEMM Maximising Science Exploitation from Space Science Missions”—can be combined and, with community involvement, generate new funding for science exploitation and maximising scientific return in solar-system sciences. Initially this consultation will occur between SSAP and STFC.

We would like to thank the community again for its strong support, and rapid responses on very short timescales. A further “light touch” review will occur in 2020, with a new call for projects anticipated in 2021. SSAP continue to appreciate the unfamiliar approach a “call for proposals with no funding attached” causes to the community and are continuing to stress to STFC that the community would appreciate clearer guidance and longer timescales in future priority project calls.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Helen Fraser on behalf of SSAP

The Global Network for the Sustainability In Space (GNOSIS)

The Global Network for the Sustainability In Space (GNOSIS) is an STFC Network+ with the goal of helping researchers within the Particle, Nuclear and Astrophysics areas to engage with researchers from other research councils and industry to study the near Earth space environment. For more details, visit the GNOSIS website or see this issue of the GNOSIS newsletter.

Over the next few years we expect a large increase in the number of satellites in Earth orbit. This will lead to unprecedented levels of space traffic much of which will end as debris. The aim of this network is to understand the debris populations and its impact on space traffic management with a view to enabling a safer environment.

The free GNOSIS lunch event will be held on 18 November 2019 at the British Interplanetary Society at Vauxhall, London, with a video link to the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, to facilitate participation from across the UK. Tickets can be obtained here.

GNOSIS will be producing a programme of meetings for both space operations specialists and subject matter novices and will be able to support the development of collaborative ideas through project and part graduate student funding. Details of our first workshop will be announced in the next month.

If you are an academic with no direct experience but have knowledge of areas such as observations, data analysis, simulation or even law, then register your interest on our website. If you are a currently working in the space sector or if you are just interested in the aims and goals of the network please also register your interest and get involved.

SWIMMR: A £19.9M programme of the UKRI Strategic Priorities Fund

Space Weather Instrumentation, Measurement, Modelling and Risk (SWIMMR) is a £19.9M programme of the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Strategic Priorities Fund.

MIST would like draw the attention of the research community to the potential opportunities which will become available as a result of this programme, which received final approval from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in August. The programme will run from now until March 2023 and is aimed at improving the UK’s capabilities for space weather monitoring and prediction. UKRI’s Strategic Priorities Fund provides a means for linking research council investment to governmental research priorities, hence the areas being emphasised in the programme reflect space weather threats to critical infrastructure, as reflected in the UK national risk register.

The programme will be delivered jointly by the STFC and NERC, mainly through open grant calls, but including some elements of commissioned work to be delivered through open competitive tenders. The first calls are expected to appear during the coming weeks. More information about the programme is available through the RAL Space website, and is forthcoming from the NERC web site.

To mark the official launch of the programme and provide more details of the planned activities, a kick-off meeting is being held in the Wolfson Library of the Royal Society on Tuesday 26 November 2019, from 10:30. Pre-registration is required for this event and can be done using this link. We hope that many of you will be able to attend.

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!

Bifurcated Region 2 Field-Aligned Currents Associated With Substorms

By Harneet Sangha (University of Leicester)

The Earth’s field-aligned currents (FACs) are a key component of the solar wind-magnetosphere-ionosphere-atmosphere coupled system. They connect the magnetosphere to the ionosphere, forming two concentric rings of opposite polarity currents at dawn and dusk. The inner ring (Region 1, R1), at higher latitudes, connects to the magnetopause, whereas the lower latitude ring (Region 2, R2) connects to the inner magnetosphere. By studying them, we are able to observe the energy transfer throughout the system. They are highly variable, and the small scale changes can be difficult to detect. With the use of the Active Magnetosphere and Planetary Electrodynamics Response Experiment (AMPERE) (comprising 66-satellites that gather the data), we can observe these small scale, structures and variations in the FACs on short time scales.

In our work, we have observed a new phenomenon which we describe as the bifurcation of the R2 currents, and the formation of a new R2 current ring (seen in Figure 1). These current signatures appear to be associated with the substorm expansion phase, and during ongoing geomagnetic activity they appear to have a 1 hour quasi-periodicity. We suggest that these bifurcations are related fast, westward flows in the midlatitude ionosphere, known as subauroral polarization streams (SAPS).

We have proposed a new mechanism that describes the formation of these current bifurcations - consecutive particle injections into the inner magnetosphere during disturbed conditions cause separate partial ring currents to form, leading to the presence of distinct R2 current systems.

AMPERE current density data.

Figure 1: A series of polar projections of the AMPERE current density data for the Northern Hemisphere on 2 June 2011, from 06:50 to 08:12 UT. The colour scale for downward (blue) and upward (red) FACs saturate at ± 0.5 µA/m2. Concentric circles show colatitudes in steps of 10°, and 12 MLT (local noon) is presented at the top of the plots, with 06 MLT (dawn) on the right. The dashed box shows the dawn-dusk axis. At 06:50 UT a standard R1/R2 FAC distribution is evident. The locations of interest are highlighted in the first panel with arrows, where by 07:44 UT the R2 FACs bifurcate to form two concentric rings and can be seen between 20° and 30° colatitude.

For more information, please see the paper:

Sangha, H., Milan, S. E., Carter, J. A., Fogg, A. R., Anderson, B. J., Korth, H., & Paxton, L. J. (2020). Bifurcated Region 2 field‐aligned currents associated with substorms. Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics, 125, e2019JA027041. https://doi.org/10.1029/2019JA027041

Evaluating the Accuracy of Solar Orbiter Plasma Measurements

By Georgios Nicolaou (MSSL, UCL)
The plasma instruments on board Solar Orbiter will determine the three-dimensional velocity distribution functions of the plasma ions and electrons with high time resolution, within heliocentric distances from ~0.3 to 1 au. The analysis of these distributions will determine the plasma bulk parameters (e.g., density, velocity, and temperature). New work by Nicolaou et al. (2019, 2020) assesses the accuracy of these measurements, considering the proton and electron instruments separately.
1. The Impact of Turbulent Solar Wind Fluctuations on Proton Measurements

The Solar Wind Analyser’s Proton Alpha Sensor (SWA-PAS) on board Solar Orbiter will measure solar wind plasma protons. However, due to the dynamic and turbulent nature of solar wind plasma, the accurate determination of the plasma parameters from the observations is significantly challenging. Nicolaou et al. 2019, simulated turbulent solar wind proton plasma that exhibits the typical features of turbulence spectrum. They modelled the expected observations by SWA-PAS (see Figure 1) and analyzed them using standard analysis methods in order to quantify the accuracy of the derived plasma bulk parameters. The results show that the typical turbulence will not significantly affect the accuracy of the high-time resolution measurements by SWA-PAS. In addition, the authors compare the accuracy of the instrument as a function of the acquisition time and discuss the sources of errors in the derived parameters.

Time series of input data compared to modelled plasma moments

Figure 1. Time series of modeled solar wind with a turbulent spectrum consisting of Alfvén waves and slow modes and a comparison to derived moment parameters from the expected SWA-PAS observations at lower resolution. Each panel shows the input data (gray line) and the moments derived from the modeled observations (bullets). The shadowed areas represent the time intervals in which the instrument collects counts to construct an entire 3D VDF. The top panel shows the plasma density the middle panel shows the diagonal elements of the plasma temperature tensor, and the bottom panel shows the plasma bulk speed. Besides the small systematic underestimation of the plasma density and plasma temperature, the derived moments suggest that the accuracy of SWA-PAS measurements, under typical turbulent solar wind conditions, is remarkably high.

2. Determining the Bulk Parameters of Plasma Electrons from Pitch-Angle Distribution Measurements

The Solar Wind Analyser’s Electron Analyser System (SWA-EAS) is designed to observe the solar wind electrons. In burst-mode operations, the instrument will obtain measurements in the 2D velocity space (as opposed to full 3D velocity distributions) in order to construct the pitch angle distributions of plasma electrons. The reduction of one dimension reduces the statistical significance of the observations and makes the analysis more challenging. Nicolaou et al. 2020, investigate the expected accuracy of the derived bulk parameters of supra-thermal electrons, which are often described by kappa distribution functions. They simulate the expected observations within the heliocentric distance range from 0.3 to 1 au and derive the plasma bulk parameters by fitting the synthetic observations (see Figure 2). The study shows that the proper fitting analysis of the measurements can derive the plasma parameters with significant accuracy, even at 1 au, where the expected particle flux is very low.

A comparison of derived plasma parameters to input plasma density.

Figure 2. (From top to bottom) The derived electron density over input density, kappa index, parallel and perpendicular temperature as functions of the input plasma density. The red points represent the mean values (over 200 samples) of the parameters derived by fitting only the measurements with Ci ≥ 1. The blue points represent the mean values of the parameters derived by fitting to all measurements including those with Ci = 0. The shadowed regions represent the standard deviations of the derived parameters. The dashed lines represent the input parameters.

For more information, please see the papers:

Nicolaou, G., Verscharen, D., Wicks, R. T., & Owen, C. J. (2019). The Impact of Turbulent Solar Wind Fluctuations on Solar Orbiter Plasma Proton Measurements. The Astrophysical Journal, 886:101. https://doi.org/10.3847/1538-4357/ab48e3

Nicolaou, G., Wicks, R., Livadiotis, G., Verscharen, D., Owen, C., & Kataria, D. (2020). Determining the Bulk Parameters of Plasma Electrons from Pitch-Angle Distribution Measurements. Entropy, 22, 103. https://doi.org/10.3390/e22010103

Modelling the temporal variability in Saturn's magnetotail current sheet from the Cassini F‐ring orbits

By Omakshi Agiwal (Imperial College London)

The Cassini spacecraft completed 20 high latitude orbits known as the ‘F-ring orbits’ during the end of mission (corresponding to northern Saturnian summer). Each orbit provided a ~2 day sample of the magnetotail region, where the measured radial magnetic field Br and the position of the magnetic equator/magnetotail current sheet centre (indicated by Br=0) showed significant orbit-to-orbit variability, despite a highly repeatable spacecraft trajectory.

Our work considers two well-known sources of temporal variability in the Saturnian magnetosphere:

  1. Solar wind forcing, which acts to displace the magnetic equator from the rotational equator. The forcing increases with radial distance from the planet and is variable with solar wind conditions on ~ week-long timescales.
  2. Planetary period oscillations (PPO), which refer to two magnetic perturbation systems (one in each hemisphere) that rotate independently around Saturn’s spin/dipole axis with periods of ~10.7 hours. They modulate the vertical position and thickness of the magnetotail current sheet depending on their relative strength and phase.

A movie showing a spacecraft trajectory through the modelled current sheet. The results show a good correspondence between magnetometer observations and modelled values as well as illustrating the temporal evolution.Figure 1: (a) Illustrates the spacecraft (blue dot) traversing our temporally variable modelled current sheet, shown by the shaded grey region. The position of the magnetic equator is shown by the dashed black line. The two arrows on the polar-plot show an equatorial projection of the northern (blue) and southern (red) PPO fields rotating with a ~ fixed relative phase (ΔΦ), with the spacecraft on the nightside. (b) Shows the time-series of Br measured by the magnetometer (solid grey line) and the modelled (dashed orange line) from our work. (c) Illustrates the temporal evolution of the z-position of the magnetic equator and the thickness of the current sheet from the model.

We combine models that consider the effects of each perturbation source on Br, and the model output for the magnetotail pass of an example orbit is shown in Figure 1. Overall, we show that the temporal variability in 90% of the F-ring orbits is consistent with the expected variability due to solar wind forcing and dual-PPO modulation. This demonstrates an understanding of the key sources of large scale variability in Saturn’s magnetotail, and shows that magnetotail dynamics can reliably be studied using high latitude orbits (which is novel in our method).

For more information, please see the paper:

Agiwal, O., Hunt, G. J., Dougherty, M. K., Cowley, S. W. H., & Provan, G. ( 2019). Modelling the temporal variability in Saturn's magnetotail current sheet from the Cassini F‐ring orbits. Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics, 124. https://doi.org/10.1029/2019JA027371 

Active Region Modulation of Coronal Hole Solar Wind

By Allan Macneil (University of Reading)

The solar wind is the continuous outflow of plasma from the Sun’s atmosphere (the corona) into interplanetary space along ‘open’ magnetic field. The mechanisms which produce the solar wind; opening the coronal magnetic field, accelerating the plasma, and imbuing it with a range of compositional and dynamical properties, are not fully understood. 'Coronal holes’, which are regions of open magnetic field, are known to be the source of the ‘fast’ (v > 500 km/s) solar wind. However, the origins of ‘slow’ (v < 400 km/s) solar wind are unclear, particularly as slow wind properties imply origins in closed magnetic field regions. We present a case study into one candidate slow wind source: active regions.

Solar images of the coronal hole alongside time series of solar wind properties.

Figure 1: Top row shows EUV solar images of the source coronal hole (CH), and the CH plus active region (AR) during the first and second rotations. The CH and AR are outlined in blue and red, and green crosses show the location of mapped solar wind source locations. The lower panels show in situ and mapping time series are shown for each associated solar wind period.

Active regions are locations of concentrated magnetic flux. They are associated with bright loops in the corona, and are a possible slow solar wind source. In April 2016, an active region emerged at the eastern boundary of a coronal hole which had produced Earth-directed solar wind one solar rotation prior (see Figure 1). This unique observational configuration is shown in Figure 1. We study what changes the newly-emerged active region causes in the solar wind, by contrasting linked in situ solar wind and remote sensing coronal observations between the two periods. Primarily, we find that the active region causes increased variability in composition and structuring of the solar wind located at the edge of the coronal hole stream. We conclude that this new variability is most likely due to interaction between the active region and the coronal hole in the form of loop-opening interchange reconnection. This process changes the open field topology around the coronal hole boundary, and may sporadically release plasma of a range of properties from previously closed magnetic fields into the solar wind.

 For more information, please see the paper:

Macneil, A. R., Owen, C. J., Baker, D., et al. (2019). Active Region Modulation of Coronal Hole Solar Wind. The Astrophysical Journal, 887(2), 146, https://doi.org/10.3847/1538-4357/ab5586 

Electron Diffusion by Wave-Particle Interactions in the Radiation Belt

By Oliver Allanson (University of Reading)

The Earth's outer radiation belt is a dynamic and extended radiation environment within the inner magnetosphere, composed of energetic plasma that is trapped by the geomagnetic field. The size and location of the outer radiation belt varies dramatically in response to solar wind variability - orders of magnitude changes in the electron flux can occur on short timescales (~hours). However, it is very challenging to accurately predict, or model, fluxes within the radiation belt. This is a pressing concern given the hundreds of satellites that orbit within this hazardous environment, and so the prediction of its variability is a key goal of the magnetospheric space weather community (e.g. see Horne et al., 2013).

Most physics-based computer models of particle dynamics in the radiation belts rely upon the assumption of slow perturbations to electron distributions due to interactions with low amplitude electromagnetic waves. However, satellite observations have shown that high amplitude waves and correspondingly large changes in electron distributions are not rare (e.g. see a recent example with observations from the ARASE satellite in Kurita et al., 2018). In our novel electromagnetic particle-in-cell numerical experiments, we analyse the diffusion in energy and pitch angle space of 100 million individual high-energy electrons in conditions typical of the radiation belt environment - due to interactions with externally driven electromagnetic waves. The method is illustrated in Figure 1. We present two main conclusions:

(i) On very short timescales (~0.1 second) we observe an initial ‘anomalous’ electron response, for which the rate of diffusion is nonlinear in time.

(ii) After the initial transient phase we observe a normal diffusive response that is consistent with quasilinear theory.

A schematic showing the steps taken by the particle-in-cell numerical experiment.

Figure 1: A schematic illustrating the particle-in-cell numerical experiment.

 The results demonstrate the exciting capabilities of our new experimental technique. Here we prove the concept for conditions that are unlikely to deviate from standard theory, and in future experiments this framework will allow us to investigate the changing nature of the electron response with increased electromagnetic wave amplitude.

For more information, please see the paper:

Allanson, O.,  Watt, C. E. J.,  Ratcliffe, H.,  Meredith, N. P.,  Allison, H. J.,  Bentley, S. N., et al. ( 2019).  Particle‐in‐cell experiments examine electron diffusion by whistler‐mode waves: 1. Benchmarking with a cold plasma. Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics,  124. https://doi.org/10.1029/2019JA027088