Magnetosphere, Ionosphere and Solar-Terrestrial

Latest news

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..

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

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!

Origin of the extended Mars radar blackout of September 2017

By Beatriz Sánchez-Cano (University of Leicester)

Several instrument operations, as well as communication systems with rovers at the surface, depend on radio signals that propagate throughout the atmosphere of Mars. This is the case for two radars currently operational in Mars’ orbit, sounding the ionosphere, surface and subsurface of the planet: The Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS) on board Mars Express, which operates between 0.1 and 5.5 MHz, and the Shallow Radar (SHARAD) onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which operates at 20 MHz. However, both radars typically suffer from complete blackouts for several days (and even weeks) when solar storms hit Mars. It is thought that an increase in the electron density of the lower ionosphere below 100 km occurs, where even a small enhancement in ionization significantly increases the signal attenuation. In analogy with Earth, some works suggest that solar protons of tens of MeV can cause these absorption layers. However, at Mars, the current origin andlong duration is not known.

Sánchez-Cano et al. (2019) focused on both the MARSIS and SHARAD radar performances during a powerful solar storm that hit Mars in September 2017. The space weather event consisted of a X8.2-class flare emitted by the Active Region 12673 at the western limb of the solar disk on 10 September 2017 (Figure 1a). This was followed by solar energetic particles (ions and electrons) that arrived at Mars few hours later, as recorded by the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission (see Figure 1b,c). Based on MAVEN observations and numerical simulations of energetic electron precipitation, Sánchez-Cano et al. (2019) found that high energy electrons (and not protons) were the main ionization source, creating a dense layer of ions and electrons of magnitude ~1010 m-3 at ~90 km on the Martian nightside. For frequencies between 3 and 20 MHz, the peak absorption level is found at 70 km altitude, and the layer was composed mainly of O2+, the main Martian ionosphere component. This layer attenuated radar signals continuously for 10 days, preventing the radars from receiving any HF signals from the planetary surface across a planetary scale (Figure 1d). This contrasts with the typical few hour durations that these phenomena have at Earth.

This work highlights the need for careful assessments of radar performances for future operational systems, especially during space weather events. During these events, a good characterization of the low ionosphere is necessary for radar operations (and other instruments that use HF radio links), operational planning, as well as for communications with the Martian surface in the HF range.

For more information please see the paper below:

Sánchez‐Cano, B., Blelly, P.‐L., Lester, M., Witasse, O., Cartacci, M., Orosei, R., et al ( 2019). Origin of the extended Mars radar blackout of September 2017. Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics, 124. https://doi.org/10.1029/2018JA026403

Figure 1: (a) MAVEN-EUV irradiance observations of wavelength 0.1-7 nm. (b) MAVEN-SEP ion differential flux spectra. (c) MAVEN-SEP electron differential flux spectra. (d) Each symbol denotes when MARSIS and SHARAD were in operation. Empty symbols designate the cases when the surface was observed, and filled symbols when was not observed. The exception are green diamonds that indicate the times when SHARAD observed a highly blurry surface.


Equatorial magnetosonic waves observed by Cluster satellites: The Chirikov resonance overlap criterion

by Homayon Aryan (University of Sheffield)

Numerical codes modelling the evolution of the radiation belts often account for wave-particle interaction with magnetosonic waves. The diffusion coefficients incorporated in these codes are generally estimated based on the results of statistical surveys of the occurrence and amplitude of these waves. These statistical models assume that the spectrum of the magnetosonic waves can be considered as continuous in frequency space, however, this assumption can only be valid if the discrete nature of the waves satisfy the Chirikov resonance overlap criterion.

The Chirikov resonance overlap criteria describes how a particle trajectory can move between two resonances in a chaotic and unpredictable manner when the resonances overlap, such that it is not associated with one particular resonance [Chirikov, 1960]. It can be shown that the Chirikov resonance overlap criterion is fulfilled if the following equation is satisfied:

δθ = (vl / tanθm) / (1 - (ω2/ce2))

where θm is the mean angle between the propagation direction and the external magnetic field, δθ is the standard deviation of the wave propagation angles , l is the harmonic number, v=me/mp is the electron to proton mass ratio, and Ωce is the electron gyro-frequency [Artemyev et al., 2015].

Here we use Cluster observations of magnetosonic wave events to determine whether the discrete nature of the waves always satisfy the Chirikov resonance overlap criterion, extending a case study by Walker et al. [2015]. An example of a magnetosonic  wave event is shown in panels a-c of the Figure. Panel d shows that the Chirikov overlap criterion is satisfied for this case. However, a statistical analysis shows that most, but not all, discrete magnetosonic emissions satisfy the Chirikov overlap criterion. Therefore, the use of the continuous spectrum, assumed in wave models, may not always be justified. We also find that not all magnetosonic wave events are confined very close to the magnetic equator as it is widely assumed. Approximately 75% of wave events were observed outside 3° and some at much higher latitudes ~21° away from the magnetic equator. This observation is consistent with some past studies that suggested the existence of low-amplitude magnetosonic waves at high latitudes. The results highlight that the assumption of a continuous frequency spectrum could produce erroneous results in numerical modelling of the radiation belts.

For more information please see the paper below:

Aryan, H., Walker, S. N., Balikhin, M. A., & Yearby, K. H. ( 2019). Equatorial magnetosonic waves observed by Cluster satellites: The Chirikov resonance overlap criterion. Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics, 124. https://doi.org/10.1029/2019JA026680

Figure: Observation of a magnetosonic wave event measured by Cluster 2 on 16 November 2006 at around 02:08 to 02:33~UT. The top three panels (a, b, and c) show the dynamic wave spectrogram (Bx, By, and Bz respectively) measured by STAFF search coil magnetometer. Panel d shows the analysis of the Chirikov resonance overlap criterion outlined in equation shown on top-left of the panel. The blue and red dots represent 10~s averaged values of dqand the ratio on the right hand side of equation respectively.

How well can we estimate Pedersen conductance from the THEMIS white-light all-sky cameras?

by Mai Mai Lam (University of Southampton) 

The substorm cycle comprises the loading and explosive release of magnetic energy into the Earth system, causing complex and brilliant auroral light displays as large as a continent. Within one substorm, over 50% of the total solar wind energy input to the Earth system is estimated to be converted to Joule heating of the atmosphere.Such Joule heating is highly variable, and difficult to measure for individual substorms. One quantity that we need to measure in order to calculate the Joule heating is the distribution of Pedersen conductance. Ideally this should be done across the very large range of latitudes and local times that substorms expand into. Pedersen conductance can be examined with high accuracy by exploiting ground-based incoherent scatter radar data, but only on the scale of a few kilometres.

The THEMIS all-sky imagers form a network of nonfiltered cameras that spans North America. Previous results have shown that the optical intensity of a single ground camera with a green filter can be used to find a reasonable estimate of Pedersen conductance.  Therefore we asked whether THEMIS white-light cameras could measure the conductance as precisely as radars can, but at multiple locations across a continent. We found that the conductance estimated by one THEMIS camera has an uncertainty of 40% compared to the radar estimates on a spatial scale of 10 – 100 km and a timescale of 10 minutes. In addition, our results indicate that the THEMIS camera network could identify regions of high and low Pedersen conductance on even finer spatio-temporal scales. This means we can use the THEMIS network, and its data archive, to learn more about how much substorms heat up the atmosphere and how complicated and changeable this behaviour is.

For more information please see the paper below:

“How well can we estimate Pedersen conductance from the THEMIS white‐light all‐sky cameras?”, M. M. Lam , M. P. Freeman,  C. M. Jackman,  I. J. Rae, N. M. E. Kalmoni,  J. K. Sandhu,  C. Forsyth. Journal of Geophysical Research. https://doi.org/10.1029/2018JA026067

Figure caption: (a) Absolute difference between camera- and radar-derived 1 min Pedersen conductance (black solid) and the effect of different temporal smoothing (coloured broken). (b) As for a, but for the relative difference between camera- and radar-derived Pedersen conductance (normalised to the radar conductance). (c) Comparison of camera-derived and radar-derived Pedersen conductance values for days with different geomagnetic conditions as indicated by Kp: 1 min radar values (blue crosses), 1 min radar values smoothed over 10 min (red diamonds), and 1 min values derived from camera intensity (black squares).

The magnetopause booms like a drum due to impulses

by Martin Archer (Queen Mary University of London)

The abrupt boundary between a magnetosphere and the surrounding plasma, the magnetopause, has long been known to support surface waves which travel down the flanks. However, just like a stone thrown in a pond causes ripples which spread out in all directions, impulses acting on our magnetopause should also cause waves to travel towards the magnetic poles. It had been proposed that the ionosphere might result in a trapping of surface wave energy on the dayside as a standing wave or eigenmode of the magnetopause surface. This mechanism should act as a global source of magnetopause dynamics and ultra-low frequency waves that might then drive radiation belt and auroral interactions.

While many potential impulsive drivers are known, no direct observational evidence of this process had been found to date and searches for indirect evidence had proven inconclusive, casting doubt on the theory. However, Archer et al. (2019) show using all five THEMIS spacecraft during their string-of-pearls phase that this mechanism does in fact occur.

Figure: THEMIS observations and a schematic of the magnetopause standing wave.

They present observations of a rare isolated fast plasma jet striking the magnetopause. This caused motion of the boundary and ultra-low frequency waves within the magnetosphere at well-defined frequencies. Through comparing the observations with the theoretical expectations for several possible mechanisms, they concluded that the jet excited the magnetopause surface eigenmode – like how hitting a drum once reveals the sounds of its normal modes.

Hear the signals as audible sound here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcG03NBJf-s

For more information please see the paper below:

‘Direct Observations Of A Surface Eigenmode Of The Dayside Magnetopause’. M.O. Archer, H. Hietala, M.D. Hartinger, F. Plaschke, V. Angelopoulos. Nature Communications. | https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-08134-5

Detecting the Resonant Frequency of the Magnetosphere with SuperDARN

by Samuel J. Wharton (University of Leicester)

The Earth’s magnetosphere is constantly being disturbed by ultralow frequency (ULF) waves. These waves transport energy and momentum through the system and can form standing waves on magnetospheric field lines. These standing waves have a resonant frequency which depends on the magnetic field strength and plasma distribution along the field line. The waves result in perturbations in the magnetic field and plasma in the ionosphere. These occur at the resonant frequency and can be directly observed with instruments on the ground. Being able to measure the resonant frequency can provide valuable information about the state of the magnetosphere.

Traditionally, this can be done by applying a cross-phase spectral technique to ground-based magnetometers. It works by finding the frequency where the phase change with latitude is most rapid. This occurs at the local resonant frequency.

The Super Dual Auroral Radar Network (SuperDARN) is a global consortium of 35 radars that observe radio waves backscattered from the ionosphere. The radars detect ULF waves by observing the movements of ionospheric plasma.

For the first time, we have applied the cross-phase technique to SuperDARN. These radars have a much greater spatial resolution and coverage and provide more detailed information than can be achieved with magnetometers alone. In this study, we have used some notable techniques, such as developing a Lomb-Scargle cross-phase technique for uneven data and exploiting an improved fitting procedure Reimer et al. (2018).

We have been able to apply these methods to several examples and validate the results with ground magnetometer estimations. When available, ionospheric heaters can be used to reduce the uncertainty in the backscatter location. However, the majority of SuperDARN data does not have a heater in the field of view and observes ‘natural scatter’. Figure 1 shows an example of the technique applied to natural scatter. The red band in Figure 1e lies at the resonant frequency. Hence, we can measure the resonant frequencies with and without an ionospheric heater.

This study demonstrates that SuperDARN can be used as a tool to monitor resonant frequencies and therefore the plasma distribution of the magnetosphere. This opens up a new application for the SuperDARN radars.

For more information, please see the paper below:

Wharton, S. J., Wright, D. M., Yeoman, T. K., & Reimer, A. S. (2019). Identifying ULF wave eigenfrequencies in SuperDARN backscatter using a Lomb-Scargle cross-phase analysis. Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics, 124. https://doi.org/10.1029/2018JA025859

Figure 1: This shows an example of the local resonant frequency being measured by SuperDARN. (a) and (b) show range-time-intensity plots for beams 12 and 15 of the Þykkvibær radar. (c) shows filtered line-of-sight velocities for range gates 10 and 9 on those beams respectively. (d) The cross-phase spectrum for data in (c). (e) The cross-phase spectrum from (d) smoothed.