Reading Solar System Science

Lead Research Organisation: University of Reading
Department Name: Meteorology


We combine seven research projects in this proposal that will separately and collectively advance our knowledge and understanding of the Sun, interplanetary space, and planets throughout our solar system. We have two main themes - to understand the science behind "Space Weather" and to investigate planets in our solar system to better understand their potential for sustaining life.

Space Weather describes the variability of our space environment that can affect technological infrastructure upon which we rely. For example, artificial satellites, aviation systems, power distribution networks and communications can all be affected by the variability of plasma and magnetic fields in near-Earth space. This variability is controlled by the Sun's magnetic cycle and carried by the solar wind through the solar system. Our research will help us understand how the Sun's magnetic field varies from one solar cycle to the next, and will allow us to predict future magnetic activity over the next few decades. We will determine how the interplanetary, or heliospheric, magnetic field is created and destroyed close to the Sun. Results from these two projects will be validated by the upcoming ESA mission Solar Orbiter, due to launch in 2018 and provide new and deep understanding of the nature of the magnetic solar cycle.

We will investigate how large solar wind structures, known as Coronal Mass Ejections, change as they are transported throughout the heliosphere. We will use the same data assimilation techniques used worldwide in numerical weather prediction and climate modelling to study the source of the slow solar wind, with velocities of 300-500km/s. These research projects will further our understanding of how the Sun influences near-Earth space and our Space Weather.

At Earth, we will investigate how the solar wind controls conditions inside Earth's magnetic bubble, known as the magnetosphere. In this region, the material is so tenuous that collisions between particles are very rare. Instead, the electrons and ions in near-Earth space undergo interactions with electromagnetic waves that change their energy and direction and can lead to significant electron acceleration to relativistic speeds. We will specifically investigate how the electromagnetic waves are energised by variability within the magnetosphere, driven by the variable conditions of the solar wind.

The ability of the icy moons around Jupiter to support life will be investigated using state-of-the-art oceanographic models. One of the key factors in the search for life is the availability of nutrients, but we currently have no way of accurately determining what lies under the ice on Europa and Ganymede. We will use modelling to predict how different salinity levels in the sub-ice ocean will influence the space-based observations made by ESA's Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer JUICE, which will launch in 2022 and is due to visit the Jovian system in 2030. The new understanding from this project will allow scientists to use observations from JUICE to probe deep underneath the ice for signs that the moons have the potential to support life.

We will investigate the electrification of clouds at Venus. Venus has no protective magnetic field like the Earth or Mercury, and it's proximity to the sun means that space weather effects on Venus' atmosphere may be very different to space weather interactions at other planets. We will build a new laboratory analogue of Venus' atmosphere to determine how droplets within clouds in Venus unique atmosphere become charged. This work is very important to understand the global electrical circuit on Venus and how it is effected by solar activity.

Planned Impact

We have identified the following stakeholder groups that will benefit from our research:

Met Office: Through regular meetings within the Reading Academic Partnership at the Met Office, we will work closely with the Met Office Space Weather Operations Centre (MOSWOC) to ensure that our science continues to be embedded in their operations with the joint aim to improve and/or extend their operational outputs. The risk of Severe Space Weather is included in the National Risk Register of civil emergencies and MOSWOC exists to provide space weather forecasts and useful information to aid mitigation of this risk in the UK. The Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading is one of only four institutions in the UK in the Met office's Academic Partnership, providing a clear pathway for knowledge exchange with the Met Office. Of the four Academic Institutions in the partnership, Reading has the greatest range in expertise in the science underlying space weather. Projects 1.1-1.5 address important scientific advances that will enable future improvements to the Met Office's operational outputs.

Power companies and Insurance Underwriters in Space sector: The Department of Meteorology has an extensive network of industry contacts who participate in knowledge exchange through themed meetings hosted at the department, and joint supervision of undergraduate, Masters-level and doctoral projects. Results from projects 1.1-1.5 will be shared with our current industrial partners through regular themed meetings with a view to exploring new, mutually beneficial, research projects in the areas of space weather prediction and mitigation.

International Space Weather Organisations: We engage directly with international space weather organisations in the US such as the Space Weather Predictions Center (with project partner Curt de Koning in Project 1.3), and Predictive Science (with project partner Pete Riley in Project 1.2) to use our new scientific results to help improve forecasts of extreme space weather events. We plan a number of face to face meetings in order to share results with the aim of improving their operational outputs.

School Students: We plan a programme of school visits where staff present new research results and run workshop activities (past activities have included "Exploring the solar system" using NASA visualisation tools). We will build upon our new scientific results and excitement surrounding upcoming mission launches to create new activities and themed talks. We will add new Space and Planetary activities into our highly successful annual Work Experience program inspired by results from all projects. The Work Experience program in the Department of Meteorology is annually attended by over 40 students from across the South of England, Wales and the Midlands.

Wider Public/space enthusiasts/amateur scientists: Project 1.3 includes a proposal to extend the highly-successful "Solar Stormwatch" citizen science project which has to date attracted over 20,000 participants. We plan to share our results through the project website to inspire and educate the volunteers, providing an opportunity to discuss the science behind space weather with their peers and expert scientists on discussion boards associated with the project. We will promote the "Solar Stormwatch" project through social media, and it will be hosted on the popular Zooniverse citizen science platform.


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Jonathan Rae I (2018) The Role of Localized Compressional Ultra-low Frequency Waves in Energetic Electron Precipitation in Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics

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Lockwood M (2018) A homogeneous aa index: 1. Secular variation in Journal of Space Weather and Space Climate

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Lockwood M (2019) On the Origin of Ortho-Gardenhose Heliospheric Flux in Solar Physics

Description Solar wind data assimilation - maximising the accuracy of space-weather forecasting
Amount £357,854 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/S010033/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2019 
End 04/2022
Description University of Reading Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme
Amount £1,440 (GBP)
Organisation University of Reading 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2019 
End 09/2019
Description School Visits (Berkshire) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact PI makes multiple individual visits to schools across Berkshire, Hampshire and in London area (KS1-KS5). Presentations made on importance and impact of project, and advertising careers in space sector to pupils, especially focussing on girls' schools. Presentations spark questions and discussion - pupils in KS4-KS5 often blog about visit afterwards, or write article for school newsletter/newspaper.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018,2019