Institutt for fysikk og teknologi
research area

Space Plasma Physics

Research in the Space Plasma Physics Group (SPPG) involves a combination of advanced space plasma simulations, as well as the analysis of data from missions such as NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale mission (MMS) and ESA’s CLUSTER. In addition, we research and model space weather-relevant processes, and we are leading ESA’s Geomagnetic Expert Service Centre.

IFT space plasma physics group
IFT space plasma physics group visiting NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
M. Hesse


The Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission, launched in 2015, is specifically designed to study the dynamics in our magnetosphere and magnetic reconnection. SPPG is part of the MMS’s Theory and Modelling team.


What happens when magnetic reconnection encounters an additional plasma population? The video shows how cold protons (originating from the ionosphere) get captured by a reconnection event in the magnetotail.


Our simulations allow us to track individual particles and see how they evolve as a function of time. In this video a streaming population of cold ions (ion outflow) pushes the reconnection site further from Earth, and represents one mechanism for how magnetic reconnection can seize to operate.


Global Magneto-hydro dynamic (MHD) modelling allows us to study the large scale dynamics in our magnetosphere. How does a microscopic process such as reconnection couple to larger scales, and what are the impact on the ionosphere?


A process called ionospheric outflow allows ionised oxygen from our ionosphere to escape. Oxygen is 16 times heavier than hydrogen and it has a significant impact on how magnetic reconnection operates.


This short video outlines the MMS mission and its first results. Since it launched, MMS has made more than 4,000 trips through the magnetic boundaries around Earth, each time gathering information about the way the magnetic fields and particles move.


One of the main research focuses in our group is to understand how magnetic reconnection works.

Magnetic reconnection is the mechanism that drives the often-explosive release of stored magnetic energy into kinetic energy of charged particles. A burst of energy released in the Earth’s space environment is estimated to be as much as 10^16J, and in magnetar flares it can reach up to 10^39J. By comparison Norway's yearly energy consumption is about 10^19J. Arguably, this is one of the most important energy conversion and transport processes in astrophysical plasmas, in space plasmas, and in man-made plasmas in the laboratory. Its full understanding, though, remains elusive.

In our magnetosphere this process occurs over just a few kilometers, while the global consequences span several hundreds of thousands of kilometers. Understanding the inner workings of this process, how it couples to these large scales - combined with a multiplicity of possible physical mechanisms render this problem extremely challenging. Only recent advances in spacecraft instrumentation and computational techniques and power create an environment, which is ripe to solve this problem. Solving this problem also has wide-ranging consequences for our ability to understand the engine behind most of the harmful effects of the space environment, commonly referred to as space weather.

The Space Plasma Physics Group studies magnetic reconnection using both space-based observations and computer simulations. The observations are made using four spacecraft (MMS) flying at close proximity to each other, in a geometry specifically designed to study magnetic reconnection. 

Our computer simulations involve modelling billions of particles to understand the dynamics of a system that undergoes magnetic reconnection. Such a kinetic/fundamental treatment of the problem is necessary to fully understand the process. These simulations are computational heavy and we are therefore restricted to a relatively small domain.

To capture the larger consequences of magnetic reconnection we model the solar wind-magnetosphere-ionosphere interaction using magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) simulations. Such fluid simulations are excellent to understand the large-scale consequences of magnetic reconnection, and how it leads to magnetic substorms and what the implications are for our space weather.

Read more about our exciting projects at https://spacephysics.w.uib.no/