Heading for ISS

Instruments from the Birkeland Centre for Space Science at UiB will soon be launched to the International Space Station (ISS), to measure gamma-ray flashes on Earth.


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In January, instruments from the Birkeland Centre for Space Science at UiB will be launched to the International Space Station.

Halfway through its period as a Centre of Excellence (CoE/SFF), The Birkeland Centre for Space Science (BCSS) is approaching another highlight. Advanced instruments, that the centre has been integral in developing and constructing, will be mounted on the International Space Station (ISS).

"We expect excitings things in the time to come", professor Nikolai Østgaard, leader of BCSS says. 

Terrestrial gamma-ray flashes

The instrument is an important part of the upcoming ASIM (Atmosphere Space Interaction Monitor) mission of the European Space Agency (ESA). The measuring instrument is the first of its kind, and will, at least for two years, be in orbit around Earth to measure terrestrial gamma-ray flashes in lightning.

That gamma-rays are produced in lightning was not discovered until 1994. Still there is a lot we don't know about the phenomenom. Therefore, there is much interest about what will be the results of the research.

The launch, on a Dragon-rocket from the Elon Musk SpaceX-program will take place in January 2018. After a few months to mount and test the equipment on the outside of ISS, the operational phase will commence. 

"I expect to get the first research data before the summer of 2018", Østgaard says, adding that close cooperation with the microelectronic-group lead by Kjetil Ullaland have been an important part of the work with the ASIM-project. 

Asking big questions

Funded by prestigious grants like SFF and ERC Advanced Grant, BCSS has made its mark in the field of space science in recent years. The broad and fundamental objective of the centre is to understand the question: how is Earth coupled to Space?

"This is a big question that scientific communities, and humanity itself, has "always" been asking. From this, we focus on four sub-categories where pieces of knowledge are missing", Østgaard says.

The sub-categories are: 1) Asymmetric Geospace: When and why is the aurora in the two hemispheres asymmetric? 2) Dynamic Ionosphere: How do we get beyond the static large scale picture of the ionosphere? 3) Particle Precipitation: What are the effects of particle precipitation on the atmospheric system? and 4) Gamma-ray flashes: What is the role of energetic particles from thunderstorms in geospace?

This type of research, among other things, lay a foundation for better forecast of space weather, which is used to increase safety for GPS-signals, TV-signals, payment systems and other satelite-based information.

New possibilities

The ASIM-project is naturally a milestone for the centre, but there are also other interesting research projects at BCSS. These include, but are not limited to, satelite-projects, radars, the dynamics when particles enters the atmosphere, and research from the Kjell Henriksen Observatory on Svalbard.

Modelling the process where the magnetic field of the Sun connects to the magnetic field of the Earth (magnetic reconnection) can develop into another important area of focus at BCSS, guided by newly appointed professor Michael Hesse, which recently got a honorary award from NASA for his contribution to space science.

Another interesting project is SMILE, a cooperation between ESA and the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS). Here BCSS builds parts for a telescope designed to measure solar particles entering the Earth hemisphere, north and south. The telescope will be launced in 2022.

Researchers and students at BCSS have received multiple prizes and awards. Research at the centre has resulted in close to 200 peer-reviewed publications. In addition centre leader Østgaard was earlier in 2017 invited to speak to the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). 


Østgaard hopes BCSS will cooperate closely with other fields of research in the time to come. Today BCSS participates in a range of international networks, and works with the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, investigating the effect of energetic particles from space on the Earth climate. 

"I wish to see more similar cooperation. For instance I see possibilities in connecting our research with that of solar physicists. Many of the processes concerning magnetic fields are basically the same on the Sun and Earth, even if everything is much larger on the Sun. Rosseland Centre for Solar Physics at the University of Oslo was recently awarded an SFF, and we've been in contact with them to see if we can start something together. But this is still on the "drawing board"", he says.

The centre leader also see similarities between the work on BCSS, and the particle accelerator CERN in Geneva. 

"We have a lot in common with particle physicists. This is a way forward that could create very interesting new roads for us, he says, adding: 

"Sharing experiences and knowledge is always a positive. What remains is often a synthesis of great new ideas".