How does the aurora heat the upper atmosphere?

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: School of Physics and Astronomy

Abstract

My research will study the aurora, a beautiful display caused by energetic particles from space hitting the Earth's atmosphere at about 40 million mph. The aurora typically deposits 50 GW of power into the atmosphere, comparable to the electricity consumption of the UK. This huge energy source has considerable influence on the temperature and composition of the upper atmosphere, particularly in polar regions. The aurora is therefore one of many ingredients needed for computer simulations of the whole atmosphere, which predict changes to Earth's climate and to concentrations of gases such as ozone.

Intense currents flow within and around aurora, heating the atmosphere just as an electric current heats a resistor. This heating has dramatic effects on the upper atmosphere, but several fundamental aspects remain undetermined. Previously it has been very difficult to measure the temperature of the atmosphere at auroral heights; it is too high for weather balloons, but too low for spacecraft. However, I recently made the exciting discovery, through experiment and theory, that the ratio of brightnesses of two specific auroral colours depends on the temperature of the atmosphere; therefore by observing these wavelengths in the aurora we can calculate the temperature. My idea is to use extremely sensitive cameras equipped with colour filters to make maps of atmospheric temperature, just like a thermal imaging camera. These temperature maps can be combined with radar measurements of the upper atmosphere to estimate the electrical conductivity, which is an important property influencing the flow of electric current through near-Earth space and the atmosphere. A computer simulation will help me to understand how different types of aurora are produced, what electric currents they generate, and how the aurora affects the temperature and chemistry of the upper atmosphere.

Planned Impact

My research will have societal impact in three main areas: outreach, improvements to atmospheric modelling, and predictions of orbital decay. Here I provide a summary of the impact expected; the avenues by which I will achieve this impact are outlined in the Pathways to Impact document.

Outreach
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The aurora has great appeal as an outreach topic, and a citizen science project called Aurora Zoo will provide an excellent vehicle to engage interested members of the public, allowing them to view data and take part in my science. The aurora is one of the most exciting natural phenomena, and the images obtained from the Southampton cameras are a great draw at talks to the general public and at schools.

Improvements to atmospheric models
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I have designed novel observation techniques which will produce a new, powerful data set for understanding how the aurora affects the upper atmosphere. The results of this research (e.g. variations in neutral temperatures) will lead to improvements in atmospheric and climate models used to inform policy decisions, with associated benefits to society over the medium and long term.

Orbit Decay
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My research into the variable auroral atmosphere will lead to improvements in predictions of atmospheric drag on space debris and spacecraft in low Earth orbit. These improved predictions will benefit commercial and governmental operators of spacecraft, both through improved quantification of risk associated with space debris, and by overcoming challenges associated with operating spacecraft at very low altitude. They will also benefit national and international agencies concerned with space policy and with tracking space debris in order to mitigate risks to spacecraft and astronauts.
 
Description Public engagement activities related to the Aurora Zoo citizen science project have led to positive changes in attitudes in the general public and local schools, particularly among groups which are under represented in physics and other STEM subjects.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Education
Impact Types Societal

 
Description EISCAT_3D: Fine-scale structuring, scintillation, and electrodynamics (FINESSE)
Amount £396,012 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/W003007/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2021 
End 10/2025
 
Description Fine-scale auroral structure: Causes and effects
Amount £482,189 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/V012541/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 12/2021 
End 11/2024
 
Title Aurora Zoo 
Description "Citizen Science" project, in which the public will classify and analyse auroral image data to enable large statistical studies. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Several listed under the "Engagement Activities" category which relate to the Aurora Zoo. Also, citizen scientists identified a type of event which has been termed "Fragmented Aurora-Like Emissions" (FAEs), a detailed analysis of which has been published in Annales Geophysicae (http://doi.org/10.5194/angeo-39-975-2021). 
URL http://www.aurorazoo.org
 
Title Auroral Structure and Kinetics (ASK) data 2019-20 
Description Multi-wavelength images of the aurora in the magnetic zenith obtained from Longyearbyen, Svalbard, during the winter season 2019-2020. Images are obtained at either 20 frames per second or 32 frames per second. In January 2020 one of the ASK filters was replaced with a new filter to enable imaging of the neutral temperature in the E-region ionosphere. Approximately 10TB of data in total for 2019-2020. "Quicklook" summary plots are publicly available online. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Data from February 2020 has been included in the Aurora Zoo citizen science project with associated public engagement impacts. 
URL http://ask1.esr.eiscat.no/keos.html?yr=20&mo=01
 
Title Auroral Structure and Kinetics (ASK) data 2020-21 
Description Multi-wavelength images of the aurora in the magnetic zenith obtained from Longyearbyen, Svalbard, during the winter season 2020-2021. Images are obtained at either 20 frames per second or 32 frames per second. Instrument was run remotely from the start of December 2020 until February 2021. Approximately 4TB of data in total for 2020-2021. "Quicklook" summary plots are publicly available online. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Data from December 2020 has been included in the Aurora Zoo citizen science project, with associated public engagement impacts. 
URL http://ask1.esr.eiscat.no/keos.html?yr=20&mo=12
 
Title Auroral Structure and Kinetics (ASK) data 2021-22 
Description Multi-wavelength images of the aurora in the magnetic zenith obtained from Longyearbyen, Svalbard, during the winter season 2021-2022. Images are obtained at either 20 frames per second or 32 frames per second. Instrument was repaired and run during December 2021. Approximately 2.5TB of data in total for 2021-2022. "Quicklook" summary plots are publicly available online. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2021 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact None yet 
URL http://ask1.esr.eiscat.no/keos.html?yr=21&mo=12
 
Title Spectrographic Imaging Facility (SIF) data 2019-20 
Description The main component of SIF is the High Throughput Imaging Echelle Spectrograph (HiTIES), providing spectrographic measurements of the aurora in several specific wavelength ranges at 0.5s cadence. SIF is located at the Kjell Henriksen Observatory on Svalbard, Norway. "Quicklook" summary plots are available online. Approximately 5TB worth of data produced during the 2019-20 winter season. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Some specific events in the data set are currently being analysed. 
URL http://sif.unis.no/hities_keos.php?yr=19&mo=10
 
Title Spectrographic Imaging Facility (SIF) data 2020-21 
Description The main component of SIF is the High Throughput Imaging Echelle Spectrograph (HiTIES), providing spectrographic measurements of the aurora in several specific wavelength ranges at 0.5s cadence. SIF is located at the Kjell Henriksen Observatory on Svalbard, Norway. "Quicklook" summary plots are available online. Approximately 2.5TB worth of data produced during the 2020-21 winter season. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact None yet 
URL http://sif.unis.no/hities_keos.php?yr=20&mo=12
 
Title Spectrographic Imaging Facility (SIF) data 2021-22 
Description The main component of SIF is the High Throughput Imaging Echelle Spectrograph (HiTIES), providing spectrographic measurements of the aurora in several specific wavelength ranges at 0.5s cadence. SIF is located at the Kjell Henriksen Observatory on Svalbard, Norway. "Quicklook" summary plots are available online. Approximately 2.5TB worth of data produced during the 2021-22 winter season. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2021 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact None yet, but specific proton aurora events are being analysed as of March 2022. 
URL http://sif.unis.no/hities_keos.php?yr=21&mo=12
 
Description Aurora Zoo - School visits 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Aurora Zoo workshops for school children, both at schools and during visits to the University. Schools targeted for widening participation to physics and STEM subjects. In 2020 we worked with 4 specific schools on multiple visits, to promote deeper engagement. We also arranged skype chats with school children while on fieldwork on Svalbard in the high Arctic to discuss what we were doing and to answer questions. A range of evaluation methods have been used, but predominantly involve a quiz before an activity and a repeat after the activity, to assess changes in attitudes and knowledge. Children from backgrounds which are under represented in physics (girls, low income families, etc.) have reported an increased interest in pursuing a career in physics. Engagement with schools continued online during the second half of 2020 and the start of 2021, through pre-recorded videos and online presentations.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020,2021
 
Description Light Up Poole 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A "photon shop" run by physicists and engineers from the University of Southampton for 3 nights during the Light Up Poole festival, February 2020. I ran an Aurora Zoo activity as part of the event. Members of the public classified auroral structures in order to help me and my team to perform large statistical studies. We discussed the science behind the aurora with the visitors, sparking many questions. Main purpose was to promote the Aurora Zoo and engage the public in active research.

Numbers:
Approx 2000 members of the public (many families with children) visited the shop.
589 Aurora classifications made on the Aurora Zoo citizen science project (www.aurorazoo.org).
Several hundred bookmarks, pencils and fridge magnets distributed.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://lightuppoole.co.uk/g2-what-do-you-have-faith-in-2/
 
Description Southampton Aurora Quest campaign blog 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Blog describing work done during fieldwork campaigns on Svalbard. The original aim was to simply to test the team's ability to write a public blog (or similar) during intense fieldwork. The blog reached approximately 250 visitors during the first fieldwork period, and led to an interview on BBC Radio Solent. Following this initial success, the blog has been continued during subsequent fieldwork campaigns. Blog posts describe the aims of the research as well as participants experiences on Svalbard, and provide useful material for other public engagement activities.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018,2019,2020,2021
URL https://southamptonauroraquest.wordpress.com/