Space and planetary physics

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: Dept of Physics

Abstract

We propose to carry out a broad series of research projects which will answer important questions about our solar system and the planets within it. We will also study the links between the Sun and interplanetary space through the solar wind, as well as how they affect space around the Earth. Space is filled with small amounts of hot charged particles, called a plasma, along with a magnetic field, so much of the work we do is fundamental plasma physics applied to space.

In our work we will study some fundamental processes that occur in plasmas, including the release of magnetic energy by reconnection and the acceleration of particles at shock waves. We will look at how the solar wind is created by the Sun and how it evolves towards the Earth, as well as how different monitoring locations can be used to predict conditions at Earth. We will pursue our quantitative assessment of the plasma processes and complexity at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, linking our models with data from the Rosetta spacecraft flying alongside. We will use data from the Cassini spacecraft as it travels closer to Saturn than ever before to learn about the giant planet's internal magnetic field. We will study the magnetic field of the smallest planet in the solar system, Mercury, as well as considering how energy is transferred from the solar wind to the giant planets and how this is different from the Earth.

These are important topics to study not just because they provide new insight into fundamental physical processes which we do not fully understand, but also because of their effects on our lives, on other areas of science and of what they tell us about our Universe. Our work on plasma physics is related to both laboratory work on the Earth as well as many astrophysical objects such as stars and the space between the galaxies. Our work on giant planets and moons helps us to better characterise the processes that occur on and around exoplanets.

In all this work we will use theoretical models and computer simulations as well as measurements from spacecraft in deep space or in orbit around planets. In many of these cases, the measurements are made by instruments that we have built here at Imperial College. Most of these measure the magnetic field in space. The magnetic field is important in all plasmas, and space is filled with plasma - but it is also important in telling us about the interiors of planets and moons. Measuring the magnetic fields in space is very difficult because they are so small, so our science is greatly helped by working closely with the engineers who design, build and run the instruments.

As part of this proposal, we will also develop the next generation of miniature magnetic field instruments, which we hope to fly on future, small missions around the Earth or other planets. This development is important so that we can take advantage of new technologies that have become available to make the smallest, lightest, lowest power and most accurate instruments possible. In this way, we lay the groundwork for the science of the future.

Planned Impact

In addition to academics, other beneficiaries of the proposed work include:

Policy makers: Space weather, the effect on technological systems of solar activity, has been recognised by the UK Government as a significant risk to national infrastructure resilience. Some of our proposed work (project P1.4) directly addresses the basic scientific rationale of sending a spacecraft to the L5 libration point, a possible location for a future early warning mission. In this way, basic research will ultimately inform the policy decision as to whether to support the future funding of such a mission. Our research into the underpinning processes which control space weather (projects P1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 2.3, 2.4) will in the longer term have the potential to improve forecasting accuracy by providing data that can be integrated into e.g. physics-based magnetospheric models. We actively collaborate with the UK Met Office, who are responsible in the UK for real-time space weather forecasting, as a route to apply our research outputs to this field.

Enhancing the nation's quality of life: Space is a universally engaging subject. Our work encompasses some of the most exciting areas in this most exciting of scientific endeavours: rendezvous with a comet; jets of water and organics from a moon of Saturn; the Sun's dynamic atmosphere; the giant outer planets. We actively engage with Imperial's communications team to work with the media, from press releases, print and broadcast interviews and social media to public engagement in schools, clubs, societies and large meetings in order to maximise the public impact of our work.

Enhancing the nation's wealth: our interactions with industry via our hardware programme have resulted in a licensing arrangement with a UK company and several sales of magnetometers. This license has now expired and as part of our ongoing proposed work (project P3.1) we are seeking new commercial partners within the UK: in this way, our blue skies research results in commercial benefit for UK companies. In addition, the researchers we train move on into jobs where the technical, scientific and analytic skills they have learned are applied to a wide range of fields.

Publications

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Akhavan-Tafti M (2018) MMS Examination of FTEs at the Earth's Subsolar Magnetopause in Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics

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Arridge C (2016) Cassini observations of Saturn's southern polar cusp SATURN'S SOUTHERN POLAR CUSP in Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics

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Bader A (2018) Statistical Planetary Period Oscillation Signatures in Saturn's UV Auroral Intensity in Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics

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Beth A (2017) Effects of the convective field on weakly outgassing comets in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Broiles T (2016) Characterizing cometary electrons with kappa distributions CHARACTERIZING COMETARY ELECTRONS in Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics

 
Title Helios ion data re-analysis 
Description A full re-analysis of proton core measurement by the Helios spacecraft, 1974-1986 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Used in multiple scientific papers. 
URL http://helios-data.ssl.berkeley.edu/data/E1_experiment/New_proton_corefit_data_2017/cdf/
 
Description Cassini Magnetometer Team 
Organisation Braunschweig University of Technology
Country Germany 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I am the Principal Investigator of the Cassini Magnetometer Team
Collaborator Contribution helped to build the instruments, and science collaboration
Impact Numerous high profile research papers based on Cassini data, and a working instrument still flying on Cassini
 
Description Cassini Magnetometer Team 
Organisation Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA)
Department Wigner Research Centre for Physics
Country Hungary 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I am the Principal Investigator of the Cassini Magnetometer Team
Collaborator Contribution helped to build the instruments, and science collaboration
Impact Numerous high profile research papers based on Cassini data, and a working instrument still flying on Cassini
 
Description Cassini Magnetometer Team 
Organisation Johns Hopkins University
Department Applied Physics Laboratory (APL)
Country United States 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution I am the Principal Investigator of the Cassini Magnetometer Team
Collaborator Contribution helped to build the instruments, and science collaboration
Impact Numerous high profile research papers based on Cassini data, and a working instrument still flying on Cassini
 
Description Cassini Magnetometer Team 
Organisation Max Planck Society
Department Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics
Country Germany 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution I am the Principal Investigator of the Cassini Magnetometer Team
Collaborator Contribution helped to build the instruments, and science collaboration
Impact Numerous high profile research papers based on Cassini data, and a working instrument still flying on Cassini
 
Description Cassini Magnetometer Team 
Organisation Max Planck Society
Department Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research
Country Germany 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution I am the Principal Investigator of the Cassini Magnetometer Team
Collaborator Contribution helped to build the instruments, and science collaboration
Impact Numerous high profile research papers based on Cassini data, and a working instrument still flying on Cassini
 
Description Cassini Magnetometer Team 
Organisation National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Department Goddard Space Flight Center
Country United States 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution I am the Principal Investigator of the Cassini Magnetometer Team
Collaborator Contribution helped to build the instruments, and science collaboration
Impact Numerous high profile research papers based on Cassini data, and a working instrument still flying on Cassini
 
Description Cassini Magnetometer Team 
Organisation National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Department Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Country United States 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution I am the Principal Investigator of the Cassini Magnetometer Team
Collaborator Contribution helped to build the instruments, and science collaboration
Impact Numerous high profile research papers based on Cassini data, and a working instrument still flying on Cassini
 
Description Cassini Magnetometer Team 
Organisation University of Arizona
Department Lunar and Planetary Laboratory
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I am the Principal Investigator of the Cassini Magnetometer Team
Collaborator Contribution helped to build the instruments, and science collaboration
Impact Numerous high profile research papers based on Cassini data, and a working instrument still flying on Cassini
 
Description Cassini Magnetometer Team 
Organisation University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I am the Principal Investigator of the Cassini Magnetometer Team
Collaborator Contribution helped to build the instruments, and science collaboration
Impact Numerous high profile research papers based on Cassini data, and a working instrument still flying on Cassini
 
Description Cassini Magnetometer Team 
Organisation University of Colorado Boulder
Department Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP)
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I am the Principal Investigator of the Cassini Magnetometer Team
Collaborator Contribution helped to build the instruments, and science collaboration
Impact Numerous high profile research papers based on Cassini data, and a working instrument still flying on Cassini
 
Description Cassini Magnetometer Team 
Organisation University of Iowa
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I am the Principal Investigator of the Cassini Magnetometer Team
Collaborator Contribution helped to build the instruments, and science collaboration
Impact Numerous high profile research papers based on Cassini data, and a working instrument still flying on Cassini
 
Description Cassini Magnetometer Team 
Organisation University of Leicester
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I am the Principal Investigator of the Cassini Magnetometer Team
Collaborator Contribution helped to build the instruments, and science collaboration
Impact Numerous high profile research papers based on Cassini data, and a working instrument still flying on Cassini
 
Description Cassini Magnetometer Team 
Organisation University of Michigan
Department Space Research Building (SRB)
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I am the Principal Investigator of the Cassini Magnetometer Team
Collaborator Contribution helped to build the instruments, and science collaboration
Impact Numerous high profile research papers based on Cassini data, and a working instrument still flying on Cassini
 
Title HelioPhy - software for heliophysics research 
Description Public software in Python which faciliates downloading and analysis of data in heliosphysic physics. 
Type Of Technology Software 
Year Produced 2018 
Open Source License? Yes  
Impact Used in several papers 
URL https://docs.heliopy.org/en/stable/index.html
 
Title QSAS - Science Analysis Software for Space Plasmas 
Description Analysis and display software targeted at space physics data. See documentation at https://qsas.sourceforge.io/QSAShelp/QSAS_help_index.html Features Optimised for Space Physics data Multi-spacecraft and Multi-instrument analysis Extensible through plugins Robust Analysis and Plotting Graphical Calculator interface Import/Export data in various formats Save/Restore Sessions, calculations and plot designs Understands units, coordinate frames Join performed on the fly Nanosecond accuracy with leap seconds 
Type Of Technology Software 
Year Produced 2019 
Open Source License? Yes  
Impact QSAS is used in the analysis of data form multiple space missions, including Cluster, MMS and Rosetta. 
URL https://sourceforge.net/projects/qsas/
 
Description , "Hold a comet in your hand", Imperial Fringe: A Space Odyssey 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Demonstrated in front of the public how to make a comet with supporting material, posters and slide show to illustrate Rosetta achievements and scientific outcomes.
Experiment redone 5 times, each time about 20-30 people watched, asked questions and interacted with us. In addition, we interacted with the public through informal chats and supporting material between the experiments with smaller groups (2-5 people for each of us at a given time).
It took place in the premises of Imperial College London one evening. The attendance included the general public as well as high school kids, undergraduate and graduated students.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description BBC Sky at Night feature 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact BBC Sky at Night broadcast, subject the Sun, featured Solar Orbiter and had extended interview with Tim Horbury and discussion of the science and engineering of the Solar Orbiter magnetometer, built at Imperial College.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06hbgkf
 
Description Exhibit at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition (London, 2016) 
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 As part of the Royal Society Summer Exhibition, we co-organised an exhibit about "A comet revealed" in order to introduce the ESA/Rosetta mission to the public and share with them the exciting, science findings. The whole week we were present to interact with the public, students and pupils. Some had already heard about the mission and were not aware of the motivation behind and outcomes, others did not know anything about it. All enjoyed "smelling" a comet and were very excited to learn more about space exploration. Many mentioned that they would keep informed about it and were keen to check the weblink we passed on to obtain further insights.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://royalsociety.org/science-events-and-lectures/2016/summer-science-exhibition/exhibits/rosetta...
 
Description Multiple interviews on national TV (Sky, BBC World, BBC News at 10pm) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Multiple interviews with media during launch activities for NASA's Parker Solar Probe mission.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018