Magnetosphere, Ionosphere and Solar-Terrestrial

Latest news

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!

Nudging solar wind forecasts back towards reality

By Mathew J. Owens, University of Reading, UK.

In order to forecast space weather, it is necessary to accurately model the solar wind, the continually expanding solar atmosphere which fills the solar system. At present, telescopic observations of the Sun's surface are used to provide the starting conditions for computer simulations of the solar wind, which then propagate conditions all the way from the Sun to Earth. But spacecraft also make direct measurements of the solar wind, which provide useful additional information that is not presently used. In this study we use a simple solar wind model to develop a method to routinely "assimilate" spacecraft observations into the model and thus improve space‐weather forecasts. This data assimilation (DA) approach closely follows that of terrestrial weather prediction, where DA has led to increasingly accurate forecasts. We use artificial and real spacecraft observations to test the new solar wind DA method and show that the error in predicting the near‐Earth solar wind can be reduced by around a fifth using available observations.

For more information, please see the paper below:

Lang, M.S., and M.J Owens. (2018), A variational approach to Data Assimilation in the SolarWind, Space Weather, 16. https://doi.org/10.1029/2018SW001857 

Figure: Model near-Earth solar wind speed before (blue) and after (green) assimilation of STEREO in situ observations. The DA enables the model to capture a previously missed fast stream, corrects a false alarm and improves the timing of a third stream

School students discover sounds caused by solar storms

By Martin Archer, School of Physics and Astronomy, Queen Mary University of London, UK.

Earth’s magnetic shield is rife with a symphony of ultra-low frequency analogues to sound waves. These waves transfer energy from outside this shield to regions inside it and therefore play a key role in space weather - how space poses a risk to our everyday lives by affecting power grids, GPS, passenger airlines, mobile telephones etc.

While these waves are too low pitch for us to hear them, Archer et al. [2018] show that we can make our satellite recordings of them audible by dramatically speeding up their playback. These audio versions of the data can be used by school students to contribute to research, by having them explore the data through the act of listening and performing analysis using audio software.

An example of this is presented where school students from Eltham Hill School in London identified “whistling” sounds whose pitch decreased over the course of several days. This event started when a coronal mass ejection, or solar storm, arrived at Earth causing a big disturbance to the space environment. It turned out that the whistling sounds were vibrations of Earth’s magnetic field lines, a bit like the vibrations of a guitar string which form a well-defined note. While the solar storm stripped away much of the material present in Earth’s space environment, as it started to recover following the storm, this started to refill again. It was this refilling that caused the pitch of the sounds to drop slowly over time.

Previously events like these had barely been discussed and therefore were thought to be rare. However, many similar events were discovered in the audio which also followed similar disturbances, revealing that these types of waves are much more common than previously thought.

Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6vbST9iMOU

For more information, please see the paper below:

Archer, M.O., M.D. Hartinger, R. Redmon, V. Angelopoulos, and B. Walsh. (2018), First results from sonification and exploratory citizen science of magnetospheric ULF waves: Long‐lasting decreasing‐frequency poloidal field line resonances following geomagnetic storms, Space Weather, 16, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018SW001988

Untangling the periodic ‘flapping’ and ‘breathing’ behaviour of Saturn’s equatorial magnetosphere

By Arianna Sorba, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University College London, UK.

At Saturn, the planet’s rotation axis and the dipole axis are aligned to within 0.01° [Dougherty et al., 2018], and so the magnetosphere’s magnetic field should be extremely azimuthally symmetric. However the Cassini space mission, which orbited Saturn from 2004-2017, observed mysterious periodic variations in the magnetic field at a period close to the planetary rotation rate. These observations suggested that the outer magnetosphere’s equatorial current sheet was `flapping’ above and below the rotational equator once per planetary rotation, to a first approximation acting like a rotating, tilted disc [Arridge et al., 2011].

However this ‘flapping’ picture does not fully explain the observed magnetic field periodicities. More recently, some studies have suggested the magnetosphere may also display ‘breathing’ behaviour; a periodic large-scale compression and expansion of the system, associated with a thickening and thinning of the current sheet [Ramer et al., 2016, Thomsen et al., 2017]. In Sorba et al. [2018], we investigate these two dynamic behaviours in tandem by combining a geometric model of a tilted and rippled current sheet, with a force-balance model of Saturn’s magnetodisc. We vary the magnetodisc model system size with longitude to simulate the breathing behaviour, and find that models that include this behaviour agree better with the observations than the flapping only models. This can be seen in the figure below, which shows that for an example Cassini orbit, both the amplitude and phase of the magnetic field variations are better characterised by the flapping and breathing model, especially for the meridional component (middle panel).

The underlying cause of this periodic dynamical behaviour is still an area of active research, but is thought to be due to two hemispheric magnetic field perturbations rotating at different rates. The study by Sorba et al. [2018] provides a basis for understanding the complex relationship between these perturbations and the observed current sheet dynamics.

For more information, please see the paper below:

Sorba, A.M., N. Achilleos, P. Guio, C.S. Arridge, N. Sergis, and M.K. Dougherty. (2018), The periodic flapping and breathing of Saturn's magnetodisk during equinox, J. Geophys. Res. Space Physics, 123. https://doi.org/10.1029/2018JA025764

Figure: Radial (a), meridional (b), and azimuthal (c) components of the magnetic field measured by Cassini along Rev 120 Inbound. Magnetometer data shown in black, flapping only model shown in red, and flapping and breathing model shown in blue. Annotation labels underneath the time axis give the cylindrical radial distance of Cassini from the planet centre, and Saturn magnetic local time.


Energetic particle showers over Mars from Comet C/2013 A1 Siding-Spring

By Beatriz Sánchez-Cano, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Leicester, UK.

On the 19th October 2014, an Oort-cloud comet named Comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) passed Mars at an altitude of 140,000 kilometres (only one third of the Earth-moon distance) during a single flyby through the inner solar system. This rare opportunity, where an event of this kind occurs only once every 100,000 years, prompted space agencies to coordinate multiple spacecraft to witness the largest meteor shower in modern history and allow us to observe the interaction of a comet’s coma with a planetary atmosphere. However, the event was somehow masked by the impact of a powerful Coronal Mass Ejection from the Sun that arrived at Mars 44 hours before the comet, creating very large disturbances in the Martian upper atmosphere and complicating the analysis of data.

Sánchez-Cano et al. [2018] present energetic particle datasets from the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) and the Mars Odyssey missions to demonstrate how the Martian atmosphere reacted to such an unusual external event. Comets are believed to have strongly affected the evolution of planets in the past and this was a near unique opportunity to assess whether cometary energetic particles, in particular O+, constitute a notable energy input into Mars’ atmosphere. The study found several Odetections while Mars was within the comet’s environment (at less than a million kilometers distance, see period A in the figure below). In addition, the study discusses several other very interesting showers of energetic particles that occurred after the comet’s closest approach, which are also indicated in the figure below. These detections seem to be related to comet dust tail impacts, which were previously unnoticed. This unexpected detections strongly resemble the tail observations that EPONA/Giotto made of comet 26P/Grigg-Skjellerup in 1992. In conclusion, the authors found that the comet produced a large shower of energetic particles into the Martian atmosphere, depositing a similar level of energy to that of a large space weather storm. This suggests that comets had a significant role on the evolution of the terrestrial planet’s atmospheres in the past.

For more detailed information, please go to the paper:

Sánchez – Cano, B., Witasse, O., Lester, M., Rahmati, A., Ambrosi, R., Lillis, R., et al (2018). Energetic Particle Showers over Mars from Comet C/2013 A1 Siding‐Spring. Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics, 123.https://doi.org/10.1029/2018JA025454

Figure: MAVEN and Mars Odyssey observations as a function of time of a powerful Coronal Mass Ejection on 17th October 2014, and of comet Siding-Spring flyby on 19th October 2014. It can be seen that from the point of view of energetic particles, the comet deposited a similar amount of energy than a solar storm on Mars’ atmosphere. (a) MAVEN-SEP ion energy spectra  (b) Mars Odyssey-HEND energy profile from higher-energy channels. (c) Same as in (b) but for lower-energy channels. Periods A and B indicate the comet O+ detections at Mars. Period C shows similar detections although the particle identity cannot be determined. Finally, periods D and E shows dust tail impacts on the instrument.

The dependence of solar wind burst size on burst duration and its invariance across solar cycles 23 and 24

By Liz Tindale, CFSA, Department of Physics, University of Warwick, UK.

Time series of solar wind variables, such as the interplanetary magnetic field strength, are characteristically “bursty”: they take irregularly spaced excursions to values far higher than their average [Consolini et al., 1996; Hnat et al., 2002]. These bursts can be associated with a range of physical structures, from coronal mass ejections [Nieves-Chinchilla et al., 2018] and corotating interaction regions [Tsurutani et al., 2006] on large scales, down to small-scale transient structures [Viall et al., 2010] and turbulent fluctuations [Pagel and Balogh, 2002]. Over the course of the 11-year solar cycle, changing coronal activity causes the prevalence of these structures in the solar wind to vary [Behannon et al., 1989; Luhmann et al., 2002]. As energetic bursts in the solar wind are often the drivers of increased space weather activity [Gonzales et al., 1994], it is important to understand their characteristics and likelihood, as well as their variation over the solar cycle and between cycles with different peak activity levels.

Tindale et al. [2018] use data from NASA’s Wind satellite to study bursts in the time series of solar wind magnetic energy density, Poynting flux, proton density and proton temperature during 1-year intervals around the minima and maxima of solar cycles 23 and 24. For each variable, the duration of a burst and its integrated size are related via a power law; the scaling exponent of this power law is unique to each parameter, but importantly is invariant over the two solar cycles. However, the statistical distributions of burst sizes and durations do change over the solar cycle, with an increased likelihood of encountering a large burst at solar maximum. This indicates that while the likelihood of observing a burst of a given size varies with solar activity, its characteristic duration will remain the same. This result holds at all phases of the solar cycle and across a wide range of event sizes, thus providing a constraint on the possible sizes and durations of bursts that can exist in the solar wind.

For more information, please see the paper below:

Tindale, E., S.C. Chapman, N.R. Moloney, and N.W. Watkins (2018), The dependence of solar wind burst size on burst duration and its invariance across solar cycles 23 and 24, J. Geophys. Res. Space Physics, 123, doi:10.1029/2018JA025740.

Figure: Scatter plots of burst size, S, against burst duration, τD, for bursts in the time series of solar wind magnetic energy density, B2, extracted from one-year time series spanning i) the minimum of solar cycle 23, ii) the cycle 23 maximum, iii) the minimum of cycle 24, and iv) the cycle 24 maximum. The colours denote bursts extracted over increasingly high thresholds: the 75th, 85th and 95th percentiles of each B2 time series. The solid black line shows the regression of log10(S) onto log10(τD) for bursts over the 85th percentile threshold; the gradient of the regression for bursts over each threshold, alongside the 95% confidence interval, is denoted by α.