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!

The Role of Proton Cyclotron Resonance as a Dissipation Mechanism in Solar Wind Turbulence

By Lloyd Woodham, Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London, UK

The solar wind contains turbulent fluctuations that are part of a continual cascade of energy from large scales down to smaller scales. At ion-kinetic scales, some of this energy is dissipated, resulting in a steepening in the spectrum of magnetic field fluctuations and heating of the ion velocity distributions, however, the specific mechanisms are still poorly understood. Understanding these mechanisms in the collisionless solar wind plasma is a major outstanding problem in the field of heliophysics research.

We use magnetic field and ion moment data from the MFI and SWE instruments on-board the Wind spacecraft to study the nature of solar wind turbulence at ion-kinetic scales. We analyse the spectral properties of magnetic field fluctuations between 0.1 and 5.5 Hz over 2012 using an automated routine, computing high-resolution 92 s power and magnetic helicity spectra. To ensure the spectral features are physical, we make the first in-flight measurement of the MFI ‘noise-floor’ using tail-lobe crossings of the Earth's magnetosphere during early 2004. We utilise Taylor's hypothesis to Doppler-shift into the spacecraft frequency frame, finding that the spectral break observed at these frequencies is best associated with the proton-cyclotron resonance scale, 1/kc, compared to the proton inertial length di and proton gyroscale ρi. This agreement is strongest when we consider periods where βi,perp ~ 1, and is consistent with a spectral break at di for βi,par « 1 and ρi for βi,perp » 1.

Histograms for 2012 of the estimated helicity onset frequency, fb, versus the three characteristic plasma scales, converted into frequencies using Taylor's hypothesis - fL represents fkc, fdi, and fρi, for each column respectively. The data used are for periods where 0.95 ≥ βi,perp ≥ 1.05. The colour-bar represents the column-normalised number of spectra. The black dashed lines represent fb = fL and similarly, the red dashed lines are fb = fL√2 and fb = fL√2, which give the resolution of the wavelet transform about the line fb = fL due to the finite width of the Morlet wavelet in frequency space. We see the best agreement between fb and fkc during these periods.

We also find that the coherent magnetic helicity signature observed at these frequencies is bounded at low frequencies by 1/kc and its absolute value reaches a maximum at ρi. These results hold in both slow and fast wind streams, but with a better correlation in the more Alfvénic fast wind where the helicity signature is strongest. We conclude that these findings are consistent with proton-cyclotron resonance as an important mechanism for dissipation of turbulent energy in the solar wind, occurring at least half the time in our selected interval. However, we do not rule out additional mechanisms.

Woodham et al., 2018, The Role of Proton Cyclotron Resonance as a Dissipation Mechanism in Solar Wind Turbulence: A Statistical Study at Ion-kinetic Scales, ApJ, 856, 49, DOI: 10.3847/1538-4357/aab03d


The Broadband Excitation of 3-D Alfvén Resonances (FLRs) in a MHD Waveguide

By Tom Elsden, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, UK

Field line resonance (FLR) has been the theoretical mechanism used to explain a myriad of ground and spaced based observations of ultra low frequency (ULF) waves in Earth’s magnetosphere. FLR is a plasma physics process whereby energy from a global oscillation (fast mode) can be transferred to local oscillations along magnetic field lines (Alfvén mode), where the fast mode frequency matches the local Alfvén frequency. This process was first studied analytically where the plasma was only inhomogeneous in the radial direction (mathematically 1D) [Southwood, 1974, Chen and Hasegawa, 1974] and has since been extended both analytically and numerically to more complicated systems [e.g. Lee and Lysak, 1989, Chen and Cowley, 1989, Wright and Thompson, 1994, Russell and Wright, 2010].

A feature of FLRs in complicated geometries, such as a dipole, is that the poloidal (radial) and toroidal (azimuthal) Alfvén frequencies are different [e.g. Radoski, 1967]. This infers that the location where the FLR will occur is dependent on the polarisation of the Alfvén wave. This property has recently been explored theoretically in 3D [Wright and Elsden, 2016] and forms the basis of this current work. The magnetosphere is asymmetric and therefore requires an understanding of FLR in 3D. We look at wave coupling in an excessively asymmetric waveguide in order to study the physics clearly.

The figure below taken from Elsden and Wright [2018], displays cuts in the equatorial plane from a 3D MHD waveguide simulation using a 2D dipole magnetic field geometry. In each panel, the x-axis is the radial direction (α) and the y-axis the azimuthal direction (β), and the density varies with azimuth. The left panel shows the energy density (dimensionless units) integrated along a field line, showing an accumulation of energy along curved resonance paths, where the FLR polarisation is between poloidal and toroidal. The middle and right panels show the square root of the kinetic energy in the equatorial plane, revealing ridges which develop by phase mixing in 3D. We find that with a broadband driver it is the natural fast waveguide modes which drive FLRs. Such modes are fairly insensitive to the form of the driver, and hence the resonances are seen at the same locations for many different driving stimuli. This means that the resonances are a property of the medium, and can hence be used as a seismological tool to infer properties of the equilibrium. Finally, the key point is that traditionally FLRs are regarded as having a strictly toroidal polarisation. However, here we have shown in 3D that they can have other polarisations.

Elsden, T. and A. N. Wright (2018), The Broadband Excitation of 3D Alfvén Resonances in a MHD Waveguide, J. Geophys. Res. Space Physics, 123, doi:10.1002/2017JA025018

Figure: Left: Energy density integrated along a field line. Black dashed line represents a theoretical prediction of the main FLR location. Middle: Square root of the the kinetic energy in the equatorial plane. Right: Same as middle but annotated for use in other plots in the paper.

AuroraWatch UK: An Automated Aurora Alert System

By Nathan A. Case, Department of Physics, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK

The aurora borealis, though most often visible from more northerly latitudes, can occasionally be seen from the UK too. To help the public in their endeavour to see the northern lights from the UK, Lancaster University’s AuroraWatch UK issues alerts of when the aurora might be visible.

As the currents driving the aurora intensify, they produce disturbances to the local magnetic field. Since its inception in September 2000, AuroraWatch UK has been using its own suite of magnetometers to record these disturbances and issue real-time alerts about where in the UK an aurora might be seen.

We have now combined and standardised these alerts, using the latest alert algorithm to produce a 17-year dataset of UK aurora alerts. This dataset, along with the real-time data, is freely available for the community and the general public to use. We find that the alerts match well with the wider Kp index and the solar cycle.

Case, N. A., Marple, S. R., Honary, F., Wild, J. A., Billett, D. D., & Grocott, A. 2017. AuroraWatch UK: An automated aurora alert system. Earth and Space Science, 4, 746–754. https://doi.org/10.1002/2017EA000328

(left) A pie chart illustrating the number of hours spent at each AuroraWatch UK activity level, as a percentage of the total number of hours. (right) A histogram of the percentage of hours spent at an elevated alert level (i.e., yellow or above) per year. Also plotted are (solid line) the percentage of time per year where Kp ≥ 4 and (dashed line) the mean daily sunspot number per year (as a proxy for solar activity). The sunspot number is divided by 10 for scale.

Nugget: Are steady magnetospheric convection events prolonged substorms?

By Maria-Theresia Walach, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK

The large scale convection of magnetic flux within the Earth’s magnetosphere due to reconnection, also known as the Dungey cycle [Dungey, 1961; 1963], is partially driven by the solar wind. During southward IMF reconnection at the subsolar magnetopause opens flux, which is then added to the magnetotail. Depending on the strength of solar wind-driving, the magnetospheric response can be delayed, episodic or prolonged, also known as “magnetospheric modes” [e.g. Pulkkinen et al., 2007].

Walach and Milan [2015] produced a statistical analysis of the event progression of steady magnetic convection events (intervals where the dayside reconnection is balanced by nightside reconnection [e.g. DeJong et al., 2008]), substorms (dominant dayside reconnection is followed by a delayed interval of dominant nightside reconnection [e.g. Baker et al., 1996]), and sawtooth events (signatures appearing to be quasi-periodic and quasi-global substorms [e.g. Henderson, 2004]). Superposed epoch analyses show that 58% of the studied steady magnetospheric convection events are part of prolonged substorms, where dayside reconnection is at first dominant. Then nightside reconnection is initiated as part of a substorm, but as the solar wind-driving continues the Earth’s magnetosphere then progresses into a state of steady magnetospheric convection, after which the substorm recovery continues.

Walach, M.-T., S. E. Milan (2015), J. Geophys. Res. Space Physics, 120, doi:10.1002/2014JA020631.

walach nugget

Superposed epoch analysis of substorms (red), sawtooth events (orange), steady magnetospheric convection events with preceding substorms (blue) and steady magnetospheric convection events without preceding substorms (green). The onset of the steady magnetospheric convection events with preceding substorms has been shifted to match the preceding substorm onset. The time of the event duration for the steady magnetospheric convection events in superposed epoch analyses in the right column has been normalised.

Nugget: Statistical characterisation of the growth and spatial scales of the substorm onset arc

By Nadine Kalmoni, UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory, Holmbury St. Mary, Dorking, Surrey, UK

During southward IMF reconnection on the dayside leads to a build up of magnetic energy in the tail. As flux is piled into the tail the configuration becomes unstable leading to an explosive release in magnetic energy, termed a substorm. The rearrangement of the magnetic field is accompanied by highly dynamic substorm aurora.

The relatively high temporal and spatial resolution of the THEMIS mission All Sky Imagers have allowed recent observations of small scale azimuthal structures, auroral beads, which form in the minutes leading to auroral onset [e.g. Rae et al., 2009]. Conjugate observations in the Northern and Southern hemisphere suggest that the beads have a common magnetotail driver and are the ionospheric signature of a magnetospheric instability [Motoba et al., 2012].

Kalmoni et al. [2015] statistically analyse the growth and spatial scales of clear signatures of auroral beads observed in the minutes leading to substorm onset. The statistical observations are compared with the Shear-Flow Ballooning Instability (SFBI) [Voronkov et al., 1997] and the Cross-Field Current Instability [Lui, 2004 and references therein] which have both been proposed to play a role in substorm onset. Our observations conclude that the SFBI initiated in the near-Earth plasma sheet is the most likely explanation.

Kalmoni, N. M. E., I. J. Rae, C. E. J. Watt, K. R. Murphy, C. Forsyth, and C. J. Owen (2015), J. Geophys. Res. Space Physics, 120, doi:10.1002/2015JA021470.

kalmoni nugget

Normalised growth rate as a function of spatial scale in comparison to (a) the Cross-Field Current Instability for inner-edge and mid-tail plasma sheet parameters and (b) the Shear-Flow Ballooning Instability for varying shear-flow widths.