Solar-Terrestrial Sciences

Solar-Terrestrial Sciences

The average magnetic field and polar current system (AMPS) model

The average magnetic field and polar current system (AMPS) model

Karl Magnus Laundal. Credit: BCSS

In this month’s post, Karl Magnus Laundal explains a newly developed empirical model for the full high latitude current system of the Earth’s ionosphere, AMPS (Average Magnetic field and Polar Current System). The model is available and documented in python code, published under the acronym pyAMPS. The community is invited to download and explore the electric currents and magentic field disturbances described by the model.



The average magnetic field and polar current system (AMPS) model

At about 10 times airline cruising altitude, at the boundary to space, the atmosphere is so thin that charged particles, electrons and ions, are not immediately neutralized in collisions. This inner edge of space, which extends from about 100 to 1000 km altitude, is called the ionosphere. In contrast to the neutral atmosphere, the charged particles feel the forces of electromagnetism. These forces depend strongly on the interaction between the solar wind and the Earth’s magnetic field, which happens much further out, at about 10 Earth radii (roughly twice as distant as geostationary satellites, but well inside lunar orbit). The result of this interaction is communicated to the upper atmosphere along magnetic field lines, and as a result, a 3-dimensional current system is generated in the ionosphere. This current system can change very rapidly, partly because of changes in the solar wind and in the interplanetary magnetic field.

Field aligned currents (red/blue) and divergence free horizontal currents (contours) from AMPS, during the course of a day. Credit: K.M. Laundal

The AMPS model describes the average ionospheric magnetic field and current system for a given solar wind speed, interplanetary magnetic field vector, orientation of the Earth’s magnetic dipole axis, and the value of a solar flux index (F10.7). The model is empirical, which means that it is derived from measurements. We use measurements of the magnetic field, from the CHAMP and Swarm satellites, in low Earth orbit. For each measurement, model estimates of Earth’s own magnetic field, and the magnetic field associated with large-scale magnetospheric currents, have been subtracted. The remaining magnetic field is assumed to be related to ionospheric currents. Millions of measured magnetic field vectors are used to fit several thousand unknown parameters in an intricate mathematical function that describes the ionospheric magnetic field at any point in time and space. Electric currents are calculated from the magnetic field.

Model values of AMPS magnetic fields and currents can be calculated with the Python library pyAMPS, which is located here: (documentation here:

This is not the first empirical model of ionospheric currents and magnetic fields, but there are a couple of important characteristics that sets the AMPS model apart from others: First, we have corrected for variations in Earth’s own magnetic field, which strongly distorts the ionospheric currents. This allows us to make precise comparisons between hemispheres. We have not imposed any symmetries between hemispheres; for example seasonal variations are not necessarily the same in the north and south in the AMPS model. Finally, this is the first empirical model to describe the full ionospheric current system, and not only the field-aligned part or the parts which circulates horizontally. This allows us to calculate full horizontal ionospheric current vectors without any assumptions about conductivity.

These unique features are made possible by the dataset provided by the CHAMP and Swarm missions, of very accurate magnetic field measurements from low orbit. The CHAMP satellite reentered Earth’s atmosphere in 2010, after 10 years of operation. In 2013, ESA’s Swarm satellites were launched, three satellites that carry even more precise magnetometers than CHAMP. So far, two of the Swarm satellites have flown side-by-side, near 450 km altitude, while the third satellite is a little higher. Swarm is expected to stay in space for many years, and we plan to release updated versions of the AMPS model as the data set grows. The production and publication of the AMPS model is supported by ESA through Swarm DISC.

A paper describing the model has been published in Journal of Geophysical Research – Space Physics: (open access)

For more background on the technique, see an earlier paper in a special Swarm issue of Earth, Planets, and Space: (open access)

Prof. Ilya Usoskin – A discussion with an inquiry mind

Prof. Ilya Usoskin – A discussion with an inquiry mind

In the May issue of the Life of a Scientist we have the pleasure to talk to Prof. Ilya Usoskin from the Univeristy of Oulu, Finland. Among numerous things, he is the head of the Oulu Cosmic Ray station and receipent of this year’s Julius Bartels EGU Medal; a decision that was based:  “on his contributions to the understanding of the heliosphere, long-term changes in the solar activity and solar-terrestrial relations”.

Prof. Usoskin, can you please introduce yourself ?

I am a Russian-born and -educated scientist living and working in a quiet and charming city of Oulu in Northern Finland. In my research I combine both experiment and theory.

Prof. Ilya Usoskin (Credit: Ilya Usoskin)

As an experimentalist, I am the head of a cosmic ray station and operate a ground-based neutron monitor of Oulu, which is recognized as one of the most stable long-running neutron monitors in the world, a muon telescope, and, since 2015, the world’s most sensitive to low-energy cosmic rays neutron monitor on the Antarctic plateau, thanks to hospitality of the Franko-Italian Antarctic station Concordia. As a theoretician, I am focused on cosmic-ray induced effects in the Earth’s atmosphere, including the firstly developed full numerical model of cosmic-ray induced atmospheric ionization. Of course, as rooted in both experiment and theory, I work actively on data analysis and interpretation, with emphasis upon long-term solar and cosmic-ray variability.

You are a recognized expert in cosmic rays, solar-terrestrial relations, neutron monitors and space weather. What got you motivated, in the beginning of your carrier?

If you expect a nice story of a strongly motivated fellow who was developing according to a well elaborated plan, this is not my case. Earlier part of my career was more like a random walk. No focused motivation or conscious choices. Eventually I migrated to the field where there was a large gap, viz. sensitivity of a neutron monitor to solar energetic particles, and I explored this deeper. Then a new gap in the knowledge was found, and another one…

Do you have any analogies to help us understand what you do ?

There is a remote analogy. Imagine, you permanently reside in your homeland and grow crops. Of course, you want to know about the weather – can you thresh the grain today or better wait until tomorrow? You may know some weather lores, e.g., that the red sunset implies a windy day tomorrow, or from the shape and color of clouds you can predict that rain will start soon, and you start stacking the hay… That’s what Space weather does. We study Space climate. Keeping the same analogy, we try to understand the overall long-scale processes driving the everyday weather. We try to estimate the probability of a cold or warm winter to occur this year or a decade ahead. Of course, the exact weather for each particular day next summer cannot be predicted, but a probability of a cold and wet summer to occur can be evaluated.

At the General Assembly in 2018 you have been awarded the prestigious Julius Bartels Medal. Can you please briefly share with us your discoveries that have lead up to this point?

I am not very sure what were the discoveries which lead to the point. In fact, I haven’t made any discovery, but some results are interesting, at least for me. In particular, we were the first who applied a full Monte-Carlo simulation of the nucleonic-muon-electromagnetic cascade, initiated by cosmic ray in the Earth’s atmosphere, to assess the cosmic-ray related effects. Applying this method to cosmogenic isotopes 14C and 10Be, we were able to perform the first quantitative physics-based reconstruction of solar activity on the multi-millennial timescale. We have shown that solar activity was unusually high during the second half of the 20th century, corresponding to a special case of a Grand maximum, but I would not call it a “discovery”. Generally, IMHO, a systematic study leading to a breakthrough in the long-term solar variability was appreciated rather than “discoveries”.

You are considered as a co-founder of Space Climate, can you please explain what that means in greater detail?

Space Climate implies long-term systematic changes in the near-Earth environment. It is more complex than just a temporal average of Space Weather, because in the latter you cannot see slow trend, tendencies. I would rather say that Space Weather is a snap-shot, instant projections of Space Climate. As a long term we mean everything longer than interannual variability (phases of the 11-year solar cycle) and up to millennia.

I would not agree to be regarded as a founder of the Space Climate discipline. The real father of it is Kalevi Mursula, with whom we discussed 15 years ago that the newly emerging concept of Space Weather is missing an important component, viz. long-term variability. To fill the gap, we organized the first International Symposium on Space Climate in Oulu in 2004, which has become the main Space Climate forum. In February 2019, we will conduct, in Canada, the seventh Symposium of the series, which collects ~150 scientists from all over World. We also regularly convene the related sections at COSPAR, EGU and AGU Assemblies.  As an oversimplified analogy, you can study details of summer weather, but then you will be totally surprised during the winter, if you are not aware of different seasons. Most of Space-era data were based during the period of the Modern grand maximum of solar activity, in the second half of 20th century. You can often hear that the Sun is abnormally quiet nowadays. But this is not correct – the Sun is now at its normal moderate level of activity, while it was abnormally active during the previous decades.

Does the future of your research field lie in interdisciplinary synergies and how important is the unrestricted access to data, today?

Exactly ! The future is in inter- and mutli-disciplinary research conducted by teams of experts. This implies the use of different types of data, and free access to level 1-3 data with full metadata is crucial for that. Data of level 0 can be, of course, kept for internal use, but shall be provided to anyone upon request. Unfortunately, the experience shows that errors may occur at any step even with best datasets, and reproducibility of the result is one of the basic principles of doing sciences.

Based on your experience, what scientific questions in your field could be solved in the near-future and why?

We are now approaching the stage when solar variability can be “absolutelyreconstructed from cosmogenic isotopes on the multi-millennial time scale, including individual solar cycles. Previously, only averaged evolution was possible to assess with somewhat “shaky” calibrations. Another very promising idea is to study extreme solar events. Just 6 years ago we could not imagine that a full analysis of strong solar events in the past, before 19th century, is possible. Now we know three such events, and there will be found more, I am sure.

Overall, we will have a quantitative (with higher quality that the sunspot number record on 400 years) record of solar activity over millennia.

What current idea you consider as the most potential ?

Personally, I am most interested now in the extreme solar events. We are close to defining the limit of our Sun in producing such events, and to assessing the probability of their occurrence, which is crucially important for both science, by providing new unique data on solar activity, and space technology and exploration. You would definitely want to know what “worst-case scenario” you may expect from the Sun and what is the probability of this scenario to be played by the Sun during, e.g., a manned mission to Mars. There is a focused research community attacking this problem from different points of view (precise measurements, realistic modelling, sophisticated data analysis), and we will meet in October this year for a dedicated workshop in Japan (supported by Nagoya University)

What would you like to convey to young researchers who want to work in your field?

My message is very simple: Do what you like in the best possible way ! Try to read state-of-the-art works by best scientists and to say “Hey, it’s good, but I can do it better !” – and then just try to do it better !

Report from the 2018 EGU General Assembly

Report from the 2018 EGU General Assembly

Last week the 2018 General Assembly were held in Vienna. Gathering 15 075 scientists from 106 countries, this is the most important EGU event throughout the year. Summarizing what happened during the week is an impossible task, as a meeting like this is way more than the 666 individual sessions convened and the 11 128 posters presented during the week. However, in this post I will point to some of the ST Division specific highlights.

This year, spring came to Vienna together with EGU. Many of us therefore used this excellent opportunity to stay outside in the sun to relax or explore the beautiful medieval city, in between the busy meeting schedule. However, the main activities happened inside the Austria Center Vienna. 

During the Solar-Terrestrial Division meeting, Theresa Rexer was announced as the new Early Career Scientist (ECS) representative in the division, taking over from Jone Peter Reistad. She will continue the ongoing efforts to make the General Assembly even more relevant for students and researchers in the early stages of their career. During the General Assembly, the Solar-Terrestrial ECS team held the session “Meet the Experts: The Future of Solar Terrestrial Research”, for the fourth year in a row. The session was very well attended (78 participants) and the invited speakers did an excellent job in reviewing important challenges and topics relevant for ECS to embark upon in the near future, covering topics from the Sun to the magnetosphere, ionosphere, and its coupling with the atmosphere.

This year we had three medal awardees in the ST division. Ilya Usoskin received on the Monday the Julius Bartels medal for his “key contributions to long-term changes of cosmic rays and solar activity, qualifying him as a founder of the space climate discipline”. The next day Eckart Marsch received the Hannes Alfvén medal for “fundamental contributions to our understanding of the kinetic processes and plasma turbulence in the heliosphere, as well as for work that helped HELIOS become a successful mission and initiated the Solar Orbiter.” Finally, Natasha L. S. Jeffrey received the Division Outstanding Early Career Scientist Award for “her outstanding achievements in improving the standard model of fast electrons produced in solar flares, thereby eliminating the long-standing low-energy cut-off uncertainty.” (citations are from

In the Solar-Terrestrial Division, a total number of 34 session were held, making up a varied program within most of the disciplines of our division due to all the contributions and efforts from the community. I can only say that I look very much forward to the meeting in Vienna next year!

Cosmic rays – messengers from space

Cosmic rays – messengers from space

Cosmic rays (CRs), are not actually rays, but highly energetic charged particles of extraterrestrial origin. The life cycle of a cosmic ray particle starts with its birth at some point in the Universe, its travel at nearly the speed of light and finally with its death ( e.g. at a detector). These highly energetic particles strike our planet from all directions and thus provide a constant background. In practice, this means that thousands of cosmic ray particles pass through our bodies every minute, but the resulting radiation imprint is relatively low if we compare this to the natural background radiation.

Sources of CRs, encompass the Sun, our Galaxy and beyond. As a result, these charged particles span almost ~35 orders of magnitude in flux and ~14 orders of magnitude in energy. This, means that we need many different experimental devices (e.g. spacecraft data, neutron monitors, muon telescopes, AMS02, PAMELA, TRACER, IceTop, Pierre Auger Observatory and many more) to capture the entire spectrum of CRs and at the same time this offers many opportunities to evolve our experimental/detection set ups and our understanding.  We measure the energy of CRs in eV (electron-Volt: it corresponds to the energy gained when an electron is accelerated through a potential difference of 1 volt). Based on the energy of CRs, we can identify the origin and map different parts in the spectrum. For example, above a few GeV/nucleon, the energy spectrum of CRs follows a power law proportional to E−2.7. At 1015 eV there is a break in the spectrum, which is typically referred to as the “knee”, below this energy CRs are of Galactic origin. From the “knee” up to 1018 eV the power law falls as E−3.1. A second break in the spectrum occurs at 1018 eV, usually called the “ankle”, where the spectrum flattens. At this energy it is possible that the particles can be of extragalactic origin. The CR spectrum continues up to 1020 eV, which is the current high-energy limit for CR observations.

The spectrum of CRs, denoting the different components and sources (Credit: A. Papaioannou, adopted from the CR spectrum by S. Swordy).

Low energy (up to ~1015eV) Galactic CRs (GCRs) are most likely accelerated in supernovae (SN) shock waves which occur approximately once every 50 years in our Galaxy. GCRs are the only matter originating from outside our solar system that can be studied directly. Thereby, their composition and energy spectra can be used to determine their sources, acceleration mechanisms and transport processes in the Galaxy. However, since CRs are charged particles those are deflected by magnetic fields. This, in turn, obscures the identification of their actual source, since their travel paths have been randomized.

At the same time the Sun is an additional sporadic source of energetic particles, often termed as solar CRs (SCRs) and/or Solar Energetic Particles (SEPs).  These particles are accelerated by shock waves driven by coronal mass ejections (CMEs) traveling through the corona, and by the magnetic energy that is released in solar flares. When a CME occurs 100 million tons of hot coronal gas is suddenly ejected into space at speeds of 1.6 million km per hour. SFs are observed in white light, UV, soft and hard x-rays, gamma-rays, neutrons and radio waves and hence cover the entire electromagnetic spectrum. When CRs penetrate into our solar system, those are affected by the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF), which is  embedded in the solar wind blowing from the Sun. Therefore CRs have difficulty reaching the inner solar system and Earth. Solar activity (and the rate of CMEs and SFs) varies over the 11 year solar cycle, leading to a variation in the intensity of CRs at Earth, in anti-correlation with the solar activity (as represented by the sunspot number). Furthermore, the interplanetary counterparts of propagating CMEs reduce the GCRs flux, leading to a decrease known as the Forbush decrease.

The heliospheric enviroment. Inserts include, an artistic representation of the Sun-Earth relations (Credit: NASA), a solar flare (SoHO/EIT), a coronal mass ejection (SoHO/LASCO), the recent Solar Energetic Particle (SEP) event from 10 September 2017 and the corresponding recordings from spacecraft (GOES) and neutron monitors on the ground (Ground Level Enhancement – GLE; NMDB) (Credit: A. Papaioannou)

If CRs are energetic enough and reach the Earth’s atmosphere, undergo collisions with its atoms and produce a cascade of secondary CR particles that shower down through the atmosphere to the Earth’s surface. These secondary CRs include pions, electrons and positrons. The number of particles that reach the Earth’s surface is related to the energy of the primary CRs that made it to the upper atmosphere. The deeper the particles penetrate into the atmosphere, the more energy they lose.  A SF and/or a CME may result to an intense flux of SCRs, which gives ground to an SEP and when recorded on the Earth’s surface, to a Ground Level Enhancement (GLE).

GCRs, being messengers from space, hold a key for the greater understanding of our universe, since the most exciting frontiers of astrophysics involve physical processes and environments that are not reproducible in the laboratory. In addition, CRs carry information from their interaction with the magnetic irregularities they encounter en route to the Earth and help us track our heliospheric environment. They also quantify the radiation levels encountered by air crews on flight altitudes and by astronauts in space.  

A synthesis of different figures showing the RAD on MSL on the surface of Mars; RAD’s field-of-view and the corresponding parts of the detector, as well as , the historical photo of Victor Hess in a ballon en route to the discovery of cosmic rays (Credit: A. Papaioannou, using figures from this presentation)

In August 2012, 100 years since the discovery of CRs from Victor Hess, the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) onboard the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) measures for the first time CRs on the surface of another planet.

A thrilling new era has already began !


Social media response to geomagnetic activity

Social media response to geomagnetic activity

Social media platforms offer every person with internet access the possibility to share content of various kind. The recent increase in social media use globally give birth to new tools and insights, from a different perspective. The size of, and the global nature of the user driven social media, makes one expect it to include information also about geomagnetic activity related to posts of visual observations of the aurora by the users. Inspired by the ongoing Aurorasaurus initiative, an outreach project with a High School class in Norway was undertaken, where the students were given the task to see if they could find any connection between the number of social media reports of aurora (using Twitter), and the observed level of geomagnetic activity (using the AL index). Their results showed a highly significant correlation, especially during the months of high geomagnetic activity, as seen in the above plot.

We here include a short project report from one of the groups to share details on how the investigation was done. The text has been prepared by Simen Sande Bergaas, Lea Sommersten Brandstadmoen, Trym Svardal Larsen, and Ingri Østensen from Langhaugen High School, Norway, together with two of their teachers.

The students from Langhaugen High School participating in the project. Credit: Silje Rognsvåg Reistad


We wanted to find out whether social media could be a valid source for finding out how much northern light there had been, and when it appeared. We used Twitter as our social media, and searched on one specific date, so we could see how much northern light there had been each day. We wanted to see if there were any similarities between a geomagnetic activity index (AL) and the number of hits we got on Twitter.


  • Each group looked at one month between September 2016 and April 2017
  • We counted the hits on Twitter for #northernlights and/or #auroraborealis each day of our month
  • We plotted these results together with the daily average geomagnetic index (AL) using Excel.


As we can see from the top figure, we got a good match between the daily Twitter count and the AL index. We got similar results for most of the eight months. The only month that we did not see any correlation was December, in which had very low Twitter counts.

How many of the Tweets were relevant?

One of the groups wanted to do something more with the project, and decided to count how many of the posts we found were relevant, and actually showed northern lights that had occurred that day. We chose one of the days, and then we counted. The result is shown in the figure below. The day we counted, there were 96 posts. Out of these 96 posts, 22 did not contain relevant information to our project. That equals 23% non-relevant posts, and 77% relevant posts.

Breakdown of all Twitter posts on March 11, 2017. Most of the posts (77%) were found to be related to auroral activity.



What we saw from these statistics was that there are similarities between the measurements and the Twitter posts. We can say that social media can be a somewhat valid source for describing the geomagnetic activity level, but not a waterproof one. Looking at the other months, it looks like the correlation improves during active times, while December, which was a quiet month, had very poor correlation. We also see that on March 11, very few of the posts were non-relevant, which strengthens the credibility of social media as a source. 


The students presented their work on posters to the Birkeland Centre for Space Sciance at the University of Bergen, Norway.

How do we study the magnetosphere?

How do we study the magnetosphere?

Our closest star, the Sun, is constantly emitting hot gas in all directions as its upper atmosphere, the corona, expands. This is known as the Solar Wind, also carrying with it an embedded magnetic field, the Interplanetary Magnetic Field (IMF).  The IMF originates  at the Sun and forms an enormous spiral throughout the solar system as the solar wind escapes radially, while the magnetic field-lines are anchored to the rotating Sun. This is the large-scale environment, or the laboratory, for a magnetospheric physicist. The core of magnetospheric physics is to increase our understanding of the complex interactions occurring when a magnetized planet is exposed to this solar wind and IMF environment. This blog-post will briefly mention some of the ways we study this interaction, and what kind of questions we try to answer about the solar wind – magnetosphere system.

First of all, what is a magnetosphere? A magnetosphere is the region around a magnetized planet where the magnetic field is the one related to the planet itself. The other magnetic domain is the one only connected to the Sun or solar wind, referred to as the IMF in this context. As for the Earth, the boundary between the Earth’s magnetic field and the IMF field-lines is rather sharp. On the dayside, this boundary, known as the magnetopause, usually sits at about ~10 Earth radii toward the Sun at the subsolar location, and wrap around to form a blunt surface that define the magnetosphere, as seen in the image above, forming a long tail in the anti-sunward direction.

When the solar wind and the IMF interact with the magnetosphere a variety of processes take place. Most interesting – when it comes to energy and momentum transfer into the magnetosphere system –  is the magnetic interactions, initially taking place at the dayside magnetopause. Through a process known as magnetic reconnection, field-lines initially connected only to the planet can merge with the incoming IMF to form field-lines magnetically coupled both to the planet and to the Sun/solar wind. This allows these newly opened field-lines to be pulled tailward by the solar wind, while still being anchored to the Earth. This is how most of the solar wind energy enter the magnetosphere system, which could reach values of Terra Watts during geomagnetic storms. A consequence of the dayside reconnection process is that the reservoir of field-lines connected only to Earth is continually reduced. The magnetosphere’s way of solving this problem is through creating new field-lines that have both their footprints anchored to the planet, again through the process of magnetic reconnection. This happens deep within the magnetotail, and causes momentum and energy to be transported toward the planet, responsible for a variety of phenomenon that we can see and measure on the ground at Earth. Most notable are the aurora borealis and -australis visible in bands around the magnetic poles, and associated magnetic disturbances. Interestingly, the entry of the solar wind plasma (particles) itself into the magnetosphere is not very important in describing the aurora. The accelerated particles causing the aurora largely originate from within the system although their energy come from the solar wind.

Nighside aurora seen from the EISCAT Svalbard radar site. Credit: Jone Peter Reistad.

When studying the magnetosphere, a large variety of instruments are being used. One can distinguish between two types of measurements that complement each other, to a large degree. To measure the influence from a large region of the mangetosphere simultaneously, remote sensing techniques are applied. One example of such is observations of the aurora, where the light originate from the high latitude ionosphere at typically 100-200 km. Since the magnetic field at high latitudes map out to very large regions of the magnetosphere, the aurora can be interpreted, to some extent , as a screen illuminating the more distant magnetospheric processes. Therefore, by studying the high-latitude electrodynamics close to the ground, one can infer properties of the much larger magnetosphere. The other type of measurements is in-situ observations of physical quantities such as electric and magnetic fields/waves and charged or neutral particles. This is usually obtained from satellites orbiting within the magnetosphere. One major challenge when interpreting such data in terms of the big system is that they only provide point measurements in a huge system. Also, temporal and spatial variations are in general mixed, as stationary is difficult to obtain/determine. Hence, remote-sensing and in-situ measurements addresses different spatial scales and often different processes in the magnetosphere system, and act  complementary to each other in order to obtain increased knowledge of how the system works. Recent missions that has greatly contributed to increase the understanding of the solar wind – magnetosphere – ionosphere interactions include Cluster, THEMIS, Swarm, Van-Allen Probes, and MMS.

Although we have learned a lot, especially through the space age, of how the solar wind and IMF environment affect the mangetosphere, many questions still remain. One example is the very nature of the reconnection process, which is a fundamental plasma process allowing efficient energy transfer into the system. A dedicated mission, the Mangetospheric Multiscale Mission was recently launched to investigate its details by probing the reconnection region at finer spatial scales than ever before by 4 closely separated spacecrafts. At present, most models describing the large-scale distributions of the important parameters in our system are indeed very static. We know that the reality is highly dynamic and structured, and it remains as an outstanding challenge to further enhance our understanding of the complexities in our system to be able to more accurately predict the outcome of the solar wind – magnetosphere – ionosphere interactions.

Dr. Helen Mason – Solar space missions: a life with the Sun

Dr. Helen Mason – Solar space missions: a life with the Sun

In the December issue of Life of a Scientist we have an interview of Dr. Helen Mason. She was working at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge, UK until recently when she retired. Her research interests include UV and X-Ray spectrum of the Sun. She has also devoted a lot of time in promoting science and working with schools from all over the world. Retirement for her means “more time for outreach and work with schools”. She has been awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) for her public service.

Dr. Helen Mason, OBE

What got you interested in solar physics?

I had an interest in astronomy from an early age. As a small child, I can remember looking up at the night sky with wonder. I studied physics and astronomy at university (Queen Mary College London), and did a topic on the solar wind for my dissertation. I found it fascinating. I was lucky enough to get a PhD place with Prof Mike Seaton at University College London, UCL, to study atomic physics and solar eclipse spectra.

What was your personal drive behind creating the CHIANTI atomic database which is widely used by the stellar and solar physics communities?
CHIANTI is an atomic database setup to calculate spectra from astrophysical plasmas

My expertise is in spectroscopy and atomic physics. I have calculated a lot of atomic data for the coronal visible, UV and X-ray lines. I realized that it was not easy for the solar community to access and use all these data. Ken Dere, from the USA, Brunella Monsignori-Fossi, from Italy, and I met for lunch at a solar physics conference in Italy, and we decided to make atomic data freely accessible online with a user-friendly interface. We decided to call this package CHIANTI, because we all love Italy. Sadly, Brunella died prematurely, but others have joined our team. CHIANTI was first launched over 20 years ago and is regularly updated and improved. We are very proud of our achievement, and very happy that it is used so widely.

As an expert in solar space instruments, having worked on pioneering projects from the Skylab solar observatory to Hinode, what is the one instrument that you would like to see in space in 10 years’ time?

It has indeed been an honour to work on so many wonderful and exciting solar missions, with so many fantastic teams from the UK, USA, Europe and Japan. We have learnt so much about the Sun and the solar atmosphere, but we are still lacking a few pieces of the jigsaw. Of course, I love spectroscopy and what I would really like to see is further developments of complex instruments which combine spectra with high cadence imaging of the solar atmosphere. We’ve had a few examples already, with the early HRTS rocket instrument, and more recently with the superb IRIS solar observations. I’d also like to look again (as we did with the Solar Maximum Mission) at the soft X-ray wavelength region. We could then really get to grips with linking the theory and observations.

A lot of women in science are forced to make compromises between career and family. Did you have to make such a choice? And is there something you would have done differently given another chance?

Combining a career in science with family commitments is never easy, for a male or a female. I have been fortunate that my husband and the people around me have been very supportive. When I was working on SMM at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, my small children came with me. I was lucky that my sisters were keen to help out and have a free holiday. My solar colleagues have been hugely supportive, with words of encouragement when times looked bleak. I owe so much to the support from senior people (males and females) who believed in me and my abilities. I chose to work part-time for many years. This was a good decision, but not everyone recognizes that working part time does not indicate a lack of commitment, far from it. I have been invited to apply for Professorships at other UK universities, but this was not logistically possible with a family. I don’t regret my decision to stay in Cambridge. It is a wonderful place to live and work.

The OBE is indeed a great honor, in what way did this affect your –daily life –professional life?

The award of the OBE was indeed a great honour, but more so because someone had written a citation for me. You never know who or what they wrote, but the fact that someone did this, touched me deeply. It gave me more confidence in myself and the unconventional path I have trodden. Most of my peers (male and female) are now Professors. I probably could have been too, if I had made different decisions, but I have to say that very few of my peers have an OBE. It is awarded for ‘service’, and this means a lot to me. My OBE was awarded for services to higher education and women in STEM, which makes it very special. In addition, I was awarded it by the Queen at Windsor Castle, a place close to where I grew up.

You have worked extensively with young children and with graduate students. Which group do you prefer to work with? And do you notice a “generation gap” between these two sets of students?

I have indeed worked both with University students and school children. I have had several graduate students, have taught undergraduates. I am also a Life Fellow of St Edmunds College, and was a tutor, then Senior Tutor, so I have supported many students in different faculties, from all over the world. I still keep in touch with some, which is a great joy. 

I have worked with school children in the UK, South Africa and India. I lead the Sun|trek project ( which has been highly successful. Working with graduate students and with children is of course very different. I enjoy both. Yes, of course there is a generation gap. Children are now growing up in a very high-tech, consumer dominated world, where ‘celebrity’ is all about getting on a TV reality show. The pressures on children these days are immense, and many are suffering with bullying, depression, eating-disorders etc. This is a huge responsibility for our society.

As a woman of so many accolades, what was the one thing in your career that you consider a triumph but never got the acknowledgement you deserved?

Career-wise, I don’t seek accolades, but I do like the work I have done to be acknowledged. I have had a few significant press releases, and participated in media activities, radio and TV. I don’t think I have a ‘triumph’ which never got the acknowledgement which I thought it deserved.

It’s been a long fight for the cause of women in science, a fight that is far from over. Specially in some fields. What do you think about the drastically varying percentage of women in some fields Vs others. Are there lessons we should learn and use to improve things across the board?

Well, I think I could write a whole treatise on this topic. My view is that everyone has their own path to tread, all equally valid. The main issue is with perceptions, and this requires a cultural change. We do not all need to follow the same ‘standard’ career path. This is not an issue which just concerns women. I know men whose careers are suffering because of family commitments or other responsibilities. For couples in a relationship, a major issue is one of mobility, that is they need to find positions in the same location. This rarely happens, and one partner often has to compromise, possibly surviving for many years on ‘soft’ money. Males can find it equally hard to get funding and grants after a certain age, no matter how good they are. Technology should make it much easier to work remotely, which should make life easier, but doesn’t seem to yet. Part-time working or ‘time off’ still counts against you in job selection and promotion. Having a family is a commitment, which needs to be recognized. A work/life balance is important for males and females in our society. Attitudes need to change at the highest levels to provide more flexibility in our working patterns.

What is life after retirement?

I am still waiting to see what ‘life after retirement’ will be like. I hope to focus more on the things which I find fulfilling, my research and outreach work. I hope to start some new ventures and have more time for my family and friends. This is the theory, but I have not yet been able to put it in practice! I intend to do my solar research, and to be involved in future projects. I am also keen to link science and art. I lead an STFC funded project ‘SunSpaceArt’ which takes scientists and artists into schools. The children have produced some fantastic, creative and imaginative work. It is very rewarding to see how animated they get. I believe that STEAM, STEM with Art, is a good way forward for the future.

Helen doing what she loves. Right: with family, Middle: DAMYP Astro group at (Faculty of Maths) Open Day and Left: working with students in India

EGU for Early Career Scientists

EGU for Early Career Scientists

Are you a student, or have obtained a MSc or PhD degree within the past 7 years? If yes, you are an Early Career Scientist! In the EGU we take great care of the young scientists, and offer a wide range of opportunities, mostly associated with the General Assembly. My name is Jone Peter Reistad and I am the Early Career Scientist (ECS) representative in the Solar-Terrestrial division. My role is to make the ECS aware of the opportunities and activities that EGU offers to the scientists of the future, as well as engaging in creating and shaping the ECS venue.

The purpose of this blog-post is to draw your attention to the upcoming General Assembly in April next year. This might sound distant, but you should definitely start thinking about this now! Let me explain why: first of all, the EGU General Assembly is a special meeting for ECSs. Actually, more than 50 % of the meeting participants are covered by the ECS definition. During the last years there has been an increasing effort to make the General Assembly more relevant for ECS. There are numerous Short Courses addressing practical skills (both general and more division specific), hot topics, and other challenges that ECS face. Furthermore, social events such as the icebreaker reception, a networking reception, and the ECS forum, are held during the week. For these reasons, the EGU General Assembly is a highly relevant, and in my opinion outstanding meeting for Early Career Scientists to attend.

But why consider going to EGU now? The regular abstract deadline is January 10, however, if you send in your abstract by December 1st, you can apply for Early Career Scientist’s Travel Support. This will potentially cover your registration and abstract fee in addition to travel expenses up to 300. December 1st is only a few weeks ahead, so do not hesitate to submit your abstract and apply for travel funds.

Of special relevance to our Solar-Terrestrial ECS readers is a Short Course we will run now for the fourth time: “Meet the Experts: The future of Solar-Terrestrial research”. Being an Early Career Scientist, it is often hard to identify which questions are new and what has been answered before. In this short course we invite a panel of renowned researchers. They will give their view on how far we have come in our understanding, and most importantly, on what challenges lie ahead for the young scientists to embark upon. This is an excellent opportunity to meet with the experts and discuss the future of our community.

We are currently a team of 5 people involved in making the Solar-Terrestrial division, especially the General Assembly, more relevant for ECS. If you have any ideas to what could be done, or want to contribute in any way, please send me a notice to

Eyes on the Sun

Eyes on the Sun

The Sun is a complex, dynamic ball of plasma which influences our lives. Studying the Sun is challenging because each of its layers have different composition, physics and wavelengths of emssion. Moving outwards from the photosphere (visible surface of the Sun), we have the chromosphere and the corona (hottest outermost layer). The solar plasma is in constant motion much like fiercely boiling water. To make matters worse, gigantic planet sized eruptions frequently play havoc with space-based instruments and communications.

To understand the workings of the Sun, solar physicists look through the eyes of 21 ground-based telescopes, 8 space-based observatories, dozens of radio telescopes, X-ray detectors, and many high altitude platforms that collect particles emitted by the sun. Optical astronomy, spectroscopy and magnetic field measurements are the most common techniques used.

The most common ground-based observations are taken with Hydrogen-alpha and Calcium-II filters. The Sun’s chromosphere is abundant in these elements/ions and emits light in these wavelengths. Chromospheric features such as spicules, prominences (i.e., jets, protrusions of plasma respectively) etc. are studied using these observations. The Sun’s hot corona emits light in UV and EUV wavelengths. Since emissions in this range are absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere, we rely heavily on space-based observatories to study coronal loops, flares etc. The variety of structures on the Sun and the different layers of the Sun are abundant in specific elements/ions. The stunning images from different filters (see fig 1) provide unique ways to probe the depths of our amazing Sun. Simultaneous images from the 9 filters onboard NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory has been revealing secrets of our dynamic Sun since 2012.

Optical telescopes are easy to build but only give us the overall view of the Sun. The temperature, ionization state, density, magnetic/electric fields, speed/direction of motion all influence the emission from a particular plasma. We require spectroscopic data to extract this information. Spectral profiles can also give us indication of unresolved structures. The latest spectrograph in the sky is NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph. Although spectrographs provide a large dose of information, they are limited by field-of-view and downlink bandwidth. Scientists therefore need to compromise on the number of wavelengths or area of observation when using spectrographs, restricting their progress.

Fig. 2: Composite image showing multi-temperature plasma. Cool 60,000 K plasma in red and hot 1 MK plasma in blue and green Credits: NASA/GSFC/SDO

The Sun’s 22-year magnetic cycle is another mystery pending to be solved. Manifestations of the magnetic field result in solar activity. Unambiguous measurements of the magnetic field are currently possible only in the photosphere. Scientists are engaged in developing indirect techniques to measure magnetic field in the higher solar atmosphere. Solar Orbiter, joint venture by ESA and NASA, will, for the first time, clearly measure the magnetic field strength near the poles of the Sun. This will improve solar models and advance our knowledge of the solar dynamo and the reversal of the global magnetic field.

Learning about the Sun will not only enhance our capabilities of predicting space weather, which can disrupt our daily lives but also strengthen our knowledge about other stars. The Sun is our closest star and we cannot study any other star in as detail as we can the Sun. Studying our “Sun as a star” will help us extrapolate the knowledge to other stars. How stars interact with the worlds around them is a relevant topic in sight of the search for extra-terrestrial life. We could also determine what will become of our planet and us eventually.

Miho Janvier – The Quest for Solar Storms

Miho Janvier – The Quest for Solar Storms

In this month’s (first ever for our blog) Life of a Scientist interview, we are very happy to talk to Dr Miho Janvier, a Researcher at the Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale in Orsay (France), whose work has shed some light on the understanding of solar eruptions and coronal mass ejections  (or solar storms) from their birth in the Sun’s corona to their evolution in interplanetary space. Additionally, Miho has actively taken part in Educational & Public Outreach efforts and has co-created an outreach project on Solar Storms using Virtual Reality technology.


Miho, can you please say a few words about yourself?

Miho Janvier (Credit: Miho Janvier)

I am currently working as an associate astronomer at the Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale in Orsay (France). My main research interests are the understanding of the fundamental mechanisms of how solar flares occur, and how to better characterize the solar storms they send in space. My research work is quite varied, as I get to work with computer simulations as well as space mission data, and for the analytical part, it’s back to pen and paper! I am also involved in the next European Space Agency mission to the Sun called Solar Orbiter: with the team at my institute, we are responsible for the operations that will be carried by one instrument (SPICE) onboard the spacecraft. I also teach at the University and am involved in outreach projects.

What is a “typical” day in the life of a scientist? Describe one of your “usual” days.

It is difficult to describe a usual day because every day happens to be completely different from another! When I am not at a conference, I generally check and answer the most pressing emails in the morning, while my favorite tea is brewing. I would generally dedicate a few hours for research before heading to lunch with my colleagues. I love these moments of socializing, as the rest of the day can be spent alone in front of a computer! Depending on the days, I may have a meeting in the afternoon, either to discuss the preparation of operations on our instrument for the Solar Orbiter mission, or to discuss new outreach projects, or to dedicate some time for the lab communication team, in which I am involved. This is also the time I answer emails that need a longer thinking time.

What do you want to achieve with your research?

First of all, satisfy my inner curiosity about the universe! This is the one reason I wanted to become an astrophysicist in the first place. Funnily, the more research I do, the more questions I have. It is a never-ending process. On a more practical level, I want my research to matter for different reasons. First, to better understand what it means to live in the neighborhood of an active star that is the Sun. Secondly, not only will this help us to build the tools for space weather forecasting that are important for human societies, it will also help us understand how planets in the solar system react to the Sun’s activity. And ultimately, this research will help assess the conditions of life in other star systems too.

Why did you become a scientist and what drew you to this field?

As a child, I was always fascinated by the night sky. But it is not until I turned 9 and discovered the TV show X-files that I became a big fan of aliens. It may sound weird, but that was my first motivation for becoming an astrophysicist! Of course, the word “aliens” may sound like a joke, but in the bigger picture, what I mean is that questioning the existence of life in the universe is, to me, one of the most fascinating questions in life.
Later in my studies, I really liked the aspect of plasma physics, where the behavior of an ionized “fluid” is affected by an electromagnetic field (and I did like working with Maxwell’s equations). I finished my PhD in plasma physics as the space telescope Solar Dynamics Observatory was in its first mission years, sending us extremely detailed images of the Sun and its beautiful eruptions.  It just seemed natural to turn to solar physics!


What advice would you give to your younger self?

To be more confident about yourself, and for this, to build a support network along your career. A few years ago, I came across the expression “impostor syndrome” and realized that the pressure we have, as young scientists, can be daunting. As a woman in science, I also realized along the years that there are still a lot of stigmas and unconscious biases in science that can make you feel like you don’t belong to the field. Creating a network of colleagues, friends (and the two can intersect!) and self-care routines will help you go through the times when you have doubts.

What do you consider as the most surprising result in your research so far?

A few years ago, with the team I was working with at Paris Observatory, we analyzed the mechanisms happening during flares (what we call magnetic reconnection, in three dimensions). We expected a specific behavior of the Sun’s magnetic field in flaring regions from our numerical simulations. This was later confirmed with observations from the Solar Dynamics Observatory space telescope by one of our colleagues, who is indeed a keen observer!

What is it that you like to do when you aren’t working on research

Away from my desk, I love travelling. As a kid, I had the incredible chance to live in several countries on 3 different continents. So I get itchy feet when I am staying too long in the same place. I am just back from Tanzania, where I was lucky to walk with giraffes and bathe in turquoise waters: that definitely made me forget the Sun for a few days! Fortunately, as a scientist, I get to travel a lot for conferences and collaborations, so I get the best of both worlds. I love doing sport (from snowboarding to a more quiet yoga sessions), music (we have a secret band with some other astrophysicists friends, but I can’t tell you about it as it is secret!) and especially dancing.


Solar Storm logo (Credit: Miho Janvier)

Can you please explain the SolarStormVR project in more detail?

SolarStorm VR is a project I started when as I was living in Scotland. It started with me meeting a talented moviemaker and talking about doing a project together. I was interested in bringing storytelling as a way to communicate about the science we do, and we thought of using Virtual Reality to excite the young audience. We obtained some funding and spent countless nights working on the project. I keep a lot of good memories from it although it was quite strenuous! As I moved to Paris for my current position, I had to juggle my new science career with touring in science festivals to present our project, which meant a lot of sleepless nights. But the smiles on our visitors’ faces were totally worth it. The project is still alive throughout the website ( where anyone can either download the video or watch it on YouTube 360.


How important is science outreach to your career?

For me, it is very important for several reasons. First of all, I have a passion for what I do and I feel lucky to have a job that is more a passion than a work. In that respect, I want to share this passion because I find space awesome!  Many times however I hear that “science is too complicated” or “I was bad in physics/maths”: for some, science seems like an obscure, incomprehensible field that is secretly kept away from the public in an ivory tower. I want to change that. Giving the chance to anyone to understand how science is being done, to make them participate, is allowing anyone to have critical thinking, which is even more important nowadays with unlimited access to real or fake facts on the Internet. And finally, in astrophysics, the majority our funding is public money. It is our duty as researchers to give back to the society that allows us to do the job we do.

Do you have any words of advice for students that would like to follow the scientist’s path

For young students: science literacy you already have, it is a skill you build. It requires hard work but I believe anyone can become a scientist. Don’t give up if it is your dream.For older students starting a scientific career (PhD students), same advice as my younger self: build a support network; don’t hesitate to ask people to mentor you if you feel you need it. You are in for the long run, so better work with people you trust, who can help you through tough times, and who you will be sharing a drink (or many) at conferences! Some of my best friends are in the field, and they make the job even better!