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Alumni of the month

Alumni of the month: Håkon Midthun Kolstø

As part of his PhD in Space Plasma Physics at the University of Bergen, Håkon is currently working at NASA contributing to make space journeys safe for astronauts.

Håkon Midthun Kolstø
At the Space Plasma Physics Group at the University of Bergen, I learn and work with the best professionals in the field, tells us Håkon Midthun Kolstø
Photo:
Håkon Midthun Kolstø

"At NASA, I search for signatures of a phenomenon known as "Magnetic Reconnection". Magnetic reconnection is one of the key mechanisms driving the intricate disturbances in our near-Earth space environment, collectively known as space weather", tells Håkon us while sitting in the NASA compound just outside Washington DC which hosts 10.000 NASA employees.

If you thought planets were the only places prone to though weather, think again. 

- If you thought planets were the only places prone to though weather, think again. Every day our closest star, the sun, shoots out billions of tonnes of charged particles traveling towards the Earth at speeds up to 12000 km/h. This is known as the solar wind. Lucky for us, our Earth has a protective shield: its magnetic field. These charged particles are deflected by our shield and under just the right conditions the process of magnetic reconnection may occur. Particles are then guided by Earth's magnetic field towards the polar cap and collide with the upper atmosphere. If we are lucky, we can actually see the after effect of this on a clear night sky as the beautiful northern lights.

- Why is it important for us to study the "weather" out in space?

- Our Earth's magnetic field keeps us rather safe from potential unpleasant encounters with the solar wind. Astronauts and satellites, however, are especially prone to hazardous consequences as they are not protected by our shield. As we seek out for long journey space missions, for example sending astronauts to Mars, we are reliant on sophisticated space weather predictions. Magnetic reconnection is one of the major puzzles that need to be solved for safe space missions.

- How can you forecast weather out in space? Do we have sort of weather stations out in space?

- Since the launch of the NASA MMS mission in 2015, four satellites have flown around the Earth in search of this phenomenon. These four satellites fly in a close constellation and are able to capture 3D measurements of this process of unprecedented resolution. Combining these observations with theoretical predictions, which we develop at the Space Plasma Physics Group (SPPG) at UiB, we are getting closer and closer to solving the puzzle of magnetic reconnection.

- You are still a PhD candidate at the University of Bergen, how does your current position at NASA connects to it?

- As part of my PhD at the Space Plasma Physics Group at the University of Bergen I am researching the phenomenon of "magnetic reconnection" with modelling and theoretical predictions. Here at NASA I can do the actual observations of the phonomenon and it is amazing to see that our theoretical predications match what happens in reality. 

- Our research group in Bergen has quite a name at NASA and it's recognized as a center of excellence. Our professors at UiB are known here and highly respected.

- Which advice could you give to students wanting to follow your footsteps and have a successfull carreer studying physics?

- My main advice is to build a strong theoretical foundation at the beginning of the physics studies, don't brush off the first courses at the bachelor level as they will constitute the building stone of your  career. If you have a strong theoretical foundation you can use that knowledge and apply it to more or less any field.