PhD projects in Experimental Space Science

Most projects give opportunities for the student to visit the polar Arctic for experimental field work, usually to the EISCAT radar facility ( near Tromsø in northern Norway. In addition, some work can be executed at the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) near Cape Town (where I am the chief scientist). Depending on the project, travel to other facilities and locations may also be possible (e.g. EISCAT on Svalbard island or Arecibo in Puerto Rico, For special circumstances, travel to Antarctica may also be possible (e.g. SANAE, Students are not expected to travel into remote locations by themselves (especially not the first time to polar regions). Conference travel is also expected.

My projects generally involve: (1) Analyzing radar data, (2) Analyzing optical data (image processing), (3) Modeling, (4) Handling equipment, (5) Designing and executing experimental field work, (6) Developing computing skills, and (7) Developing presentation and writing skills.

Example projects include:

Wave-plasma interactions (artificial auroras)

>99% of the observable universe is filled with plasma and radio waves (e.g. inter-stellar medium, solar wind, solar corona, Earth’s magnetosphere and radiation belts). Plasma particles (mostly electrons and protons) can be accelerated to high energies, which is dangerous to human and equipment survival in spaceflight. This 4th state of matter is so common in the universe yet rare on Earth. To study fundamental wave-particle interactions, leading to particles gaining high energies, we pump high power radio waves from the ground into the earth’s ionosphere, which is partly a plasma, in the height range 200-300 km. Some configurations cause plasma resonances, resulting in artificial auroras, which we observe using our own bespoke night-vision cameras. I have co-pioneered this work both at EISCAT and HAARP.

Projects include: (1) Determine how the threshold to generating artificial auroras varies with the pump frequency, (2) Determine the energy spectrum of the particles. These projects will consist of radar/heater and optical field work at EISCAT ( in Tromso, northern Norway. In addition, new projects are planned at Arecibo ( in Puerto Rico (USA).

SPARKLE-225x300 DASI2-225x300
Arecibo-300x225 HAARP-300x225

Climate change (atmospheric density)

Climate change is happening, perhaps accelerated by human emissions of carbon-dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. These greenhouse gasses cause the troposphere (<20 km height) to warm up and the mesosphere (50-80 km height) to cool down. The net effect is that the entire atmosphere is contracting. I have pioneered a new radar technique to measure thermospheric oxygen density at ~350 km altitude. Initial comparisons with satellite drag measurements show excellent agreement. Projects include: (1) Determine the thermospheric oxygen density variation after geomagnetic storms (~350 km), (2) Extract the Helium density (~500 km) or Hydrogen density (~800 km) from combined satellite and radar data, (3) Determine the thermospheric density by active experiment (heating by high power radio waves). These projects will consist of radar/heater field work at EISCAT (Click here) in Tromso, northern Norway.


Auroral physics (black auroras)

Many people are familiar with the white auroras (sometimes with colours), but few know about the black auroras that may appear between the white auroras or in a diffuse background in the sky. We observe this phenomenon frequently in the auroral zone, but little is known about them except that they occur after major auroral storms typically after midnight.

Projects include: (1) Determine the energy spectrum of precipitating particles inside/outside the black auroras, (2) Determine the origin of the black auroras in the Earth’s magnetosphere and compare ground-based observations to satellite data. These projects will consist of radar and optical field work at EISCAT ( in Tromso, northern Norway.

Black aurora EMCCD-166x300

Meso-scale dynamics (thermospheric winds)

Dynamic and static models of the atmosphere are only able to account for about half of the energy dissipation therein. Work done by myself with the EISCAT Svalbard Radar ( has shown that this “missing” energy component is probably due to the low spatial resolution of the models, i.e. they do not resolve meso-scale structures (~50km). Lancaster owns one of only half-a-dozen Scanning Doppler Imagers (SDI) in the world, currently being re-deployed to South Pole station. The SDI remotely measures thermospheric winds (~120 and ~250 km altitude) with meso-scale resolution.

Projects include: (1) Determine meso-scale thermospheric wind structures in the immediate vicinity of the auroras, and (2) Determine the neutral wind dynamo effect for meso-scale thermospheric winds. These projects will consist of analysing ground-based SDI optical (Alaska and South Pole) and SuperDARN radar ( data.

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Ionospheric composition

A fundamental problem is that the atmospheric composition with altitude is not well known. This is especially true for the auroral zone at high latitudes where huge energy input caused by geomagnetic storms (including the auroras) causes significant vertical mixing. The problem is much more acute for the ion composition compared to the neutral composition. Although the ions are the minority species, they are very important because they are driven by electric fields imposed from space by the solar wind, which varies with solar storms. Measuring atmospheric composition at high altitude (>100 km) is only possible with rockets and is extremely expensive. We are pioneering a new technique to measure ion composition in the critical transition height range (~180-200 km altitude) where NO+ and O2+ gives way to O+ using the EISCAT heater facility to observe the ion gyro-frequency.

Projects include: (1) Determine the ion composition for different seasons, (2) Determine the ion composition for day and night time, and (3) Determine the ion composition after major geomagnetic storms. These projects will consist of radar/heater field work at EISCAT ( in Tromso, northern Norway.

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Mesospheric physics (ozone)

The Earth’s mesosphere (~50-80 km altitude) is very under-studied because it is too high for aircraft and balloons but too low for satellites, and rockets are very expensive. However, the mesosphere forms part of the crucial interface between ground weather and space weather. It is known that particle precipitation into the auroral zone from space creates a long-lived (lifetime months) nitrous-oxides (NOx), which are a power catalyst for ozone destruction. Of course, ozone is crucial to blocking harmful UV radiation. Once created, NOx circulates with the winds destroying ozone far from the auroral zone. In a collaboration with MIT (Haystack Observatory), we are developing and deploying a global chain of mesospheric ozone radiometers from north pole to south pole.

Projects include: (1) Determine in-situ ozone loss as a function of particle flux and energy, (2) Determine ozone gain as a function stratospheric warming events, and (3) Determine ozone loss due to nitrous-oxide circulation. These projects will consist in part of field work to deploy instruments at various locations (including South Africa) and run experiments at EISCAT ( in Tromso, northern Norway.

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MOSAIC Finland-225x300

Mesospheric physics (dusty plasmas)

Dust pervades the space environment and can be found in planetary rings, comets, planets and moons. Dust easily accumulates charge, becoming a dusty plasma. Dusty plasma is rare on Earth because the atmosphere quickly neutralizes any charge. However, incoming meteors deposit many tons of dust every day into the mesosphere, where the gas density is low enough to permit dust charging. To study this common material in space, we can observe the Polar Mesospheric Summer/Winter Echo (PMSE or PMWE) phenomenon in radars, e.g. EISCAT ( or SuperDARN ( Much work has already been done with the EISCAT radars, but little has been done with the SuperDARN radars which have a much greater coverage.

Projects include: (1) Determine the global occurrence of PMSE/PMWE for polar SuperDARN radars, focusing of the 3 British Arctic radars and 2 Antarctic radars (South African and British), (2) Determine the horizontal motion of PMSE/PMWE from SuperDARN radars, and (3) Determine the dust density, dust size and dust charge using EISCAT. These projects may consist in part of radar/heater field work at EISCAT ( in Tromso, northern Norway, as well as time at SANSA near Cape Town in South Africa.

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Radiation belt remediation (VLF cyclotron resonance) RBR-225x300 EMCCD-166x300

Lightning in the mesosphere (sprites)

Sprites are lightning strikes from the top of convective clouds into space within the mesosphere (~20-80 km altitude). This mysterious phenomenon, first observed by airline pilots, remains poorly understood. It is clear that sprites form part of the global electric circuit and that the involve accelerating electrons to relativistic velocities. We combine Extra Low Frequency (ELF) radio wave and optical data from field experiments to characterise the phenomenon.

Projects include: (1) Determine the flux and energy of accelerated particles within sprites, and (2) Determine whether a unique Very Low Frequency (VLF) signature exists in addition to the ELF and optical signatures. This project will consist of field work in southern France and may consist of field work in South Africa (where we are kick-starting sprite research). This project will be co-supervised by Dr. Martin Fullekrug (University of Bath).


Sprite ELF-225x300

Last updated February 18th, 2014 by Mike Kosch

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