Space Science Research Projects

Space Science Research Projects

The New Mexico Consortium and Los Alamos National Laboratory’s (LANL) Intelligence and Space Research (ISR) division pursue joint research in space science. Research topics include space weather, planetary exploration, and remote sensing of the earth. The NMC and LANL seek to increase student and faculty involvement in research, and hope to facilitate the development of new missions. Read below to learn more about space science research at the NMC:

Heating of Ions in the Low-beta Compressible Solar Wind

Solar Wind Research

Xiangrong (Sean) Fu, New Mexico Consortium
Hui Li, Los Alamos National Laboratory
Fan Guo, Los Alamos National Laboratory
William Matthaeus, University of Delaware
Zhaoming Gan, New Mexico Consortium

The solar wind is the high speed plasma flow originated from the Sun, carrying magnetic field and energetic particles and propagating throughout the heliosphere. In-situ measurements have shown that solar wind is turbulent and ions are heated, though the heating mechanisms for solar wind ions are still under debate and a subject of active research.

We will study the solar wind ion heating in the regime when the turbulent Mach number is high and the plasma beta is low, i.e. the low-beta compressible turbulence regime. This regime is particularly relevant in the near-Sun region where the solar wind originates and the magnetic energy density is large. NASA’s Parker Solar Probe mission is actively exploring this exciting region now. Large-scale 3D MHD and hybrid simulations will be carried out to address the problem using turbulence and plasma parameters provided by in-situ spacecraft measurements and global models. The study will enable us to test competing solar wind heating mechanisms and provide critical microphysics inputs for improved global solar wind models.

This project is funded by NASA.

Parametric Instabilities and Nonlinear Interactions of Alfven Waves in Low-beta Plasmas

Xiangrong (Sean) Fu, New Mexico Consortium
Seth Dorfman, Space Science Institute

A fundamental wave mode of a plasma with a magnetic field, called an Alfven wave, is unstable at high amplitudes and will convert into other waves.  This process, called a parametric instability, has been theoretically predicted for 50 years.  However, laboratory verification of this process has not been possible due to the long-wavelength, low-frequency nature of Alfven waves. Recent experiments on the Large Plasma Device (LAPD) at University of California Los Angeles have confirmed a few key processes related to parametric instabilities. But significant differences from the predictions of the existing theory were also found. In order to quantitatively understand these effects and solve the puzzle, we will carry out large-scale computer simulations in an experimentally relevant regime. We also plan to develop a new theory for the parametric instability of Alfven waves, taking into account the finite extent of the waves as in the experiment. Results of this study will have broad implications to plasmas not only in the laboratory but also in space.  Recent studies on the parametric decay instability (PDI) suggest that it can play an important role in the solar wind and the atmosphere of the Sun. PDI can affect the development of turbulence and contribute to heating of ions, especially in the close-to-sun region currently being explored by NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, where the magnetic field of the sun is strong.

Natural plasmas typically have more than one ion species, and the composition affects various properties of Alfven waves, therefore it is possible to use the nonlinear wave-wave interactions as a diagnosis of plasma composition. Our recent experiments on the Large Plasma Device have demonstrated that the relative density of two ion species can be determined by measuring nonlinear interaction of two counter-propagating Alfven waves. We will extend this study to a plasma with three or more ion species similar to natural plasmas in space, where multiple bands of waves exist and more nonlinear interactions are possible. We will also investigate the feasibility of launching two co-propagating waves to measure the ion composition. The outcome of this study will have implication in developing new technology to measure cold ion populations in space plasmas, which has been very challenging using traditional methods.

This project is funded by the DOE.

Genesis Mission Constraints on Solar-Wind Fractionation: CNO Regime Measurements and Data Analyses to Determine Solar Abundances from the Solar Wind

SHINE PROJECT - New Mexico Consortium, Los Alamos, New Mexico

Karen Rieck, NMC Research Scientist
Daniel Reisenfeld, LANL Staff Scientist, NMC Affiliate
Roger Wiens, LANL Staff Scientist

Samples of solar wind were returned to Earth for analysis by the Genesis spacecraft so that solar wind could be used to provide accurate and precise measurements of solar composition. However, elemental and isotopic fractionation that occurs during solar wind formation changes the composition of the solar wind relative to photospheric abundances. The fractionation must be quantified and subtracted from solar wind composition to derive accurate solar data from solar wind data. Fractionation depends on a variety of factors, including the first ionization potential of the element, the mass of the ion, the speed of the solar wind, and the phase of the solar cycle. Our goal is to provide data on how fractionation depends on these factors to help test models describing solar wind formation. To accomplish this goal, we measure abundances of C, N, and O in Genesis regime-specific samples using secondary ion mass spectrometry. We also use composition data from the Solar Wind Ion Composition Spectrometer (SWICS) instrument onboard the ACE spacecraft, as well as other solar wind instruments (e.g., the Genesis ion and electron monitors, and the Ulysses solar wind spectrometers) to help us develop a method to correct solar wind abundances to solar abundances.

Innovative Advances in Understanding Auroral Phenomena by Harnessing the Power of Citizen Science

NMC Space Science Aurora Los Alamos

Space Weather Research and NASA's Van Allen Probes Mission

Space Weather Research - New Mexico Consortium, Los Alamos, New Mexico

Plasma Structure and Composition as a Driver of Wave Growth in the Inner Magnetosphere


Michael Denton, NMC Research Scientist
Lauren Blum, NASA/Goddard

Uncovering the underlying physics behind electro-magnetic (EM) wave generation in the Earth’s magnetosphere is essential for better predicting where and when the waves will be present.

EM waves cause particle acceleration and/or loss and hence are important for prediction and mitigation of the potentially damaging radiation environment that satellites operate within. Recent studies of EMIC waves reveal a dependence of the waves’ spatial extent on magnetic local time (MLT), wave frequency, and L shell around Earth.

Various hypotheses have been proposed to explain some of these patterns, including different sources (and spatial extents) of ion anisotropy on the day versus night side, compositional variations throughout the inner magnetosphere, or cold plasma density structure. Studies of ion dynamics in the inner magnetosphere have shown rapid evolution in spatial structures and boundaries, as well as composition, but the relationship between these variations and characteristic EMIC wave scales has yet to be explored. Multipoint measurements in the inner magnetosphere (e.g from satellite missions such as the NASA Van Allen Probes) can allow the spatial and temporal evolution of various particle populations and wave modes to be disentangled.

Electron Acceleration and Emissions from the Solar Flare Termination Shock

SHINE PROJECT - New Mexico Consortium, Los Alamos, New Mexico

Fan Guo, LANL Staff Scientist, NMC Affiliate

The overarching goal of the project is to understand electron acceleration and emission by reconnection-driven termination shocks in solar flares.

Solar flares are remarkable sites for particle acceleration and high-energy emissions in the solar system (Lin et al. 2003). However, how the non-thermal particles are accelerated is currently under debate. The goal of this project will be to model the dynamical evolution of the termination shock and its electron acceleration through several studies. The outcome will advance our understanding of multi-wavelength emissions and the role of the termination shock in dissipating energy and accelerating particles in solar flares.

Collaborative Research: Turbulence, Structures, and Diffusive Shock Acceleration

Fan Guo, LANL Staff Scientist, NMC Affiliate

Although shock waves are thought to be effective accelerators of particles via the diffusive shock acceleration (DSA) mechanism, the predicted characteristics of the energetic particle distribution are often inconsistent with observations.

We propose to investigate the amplification and generation of turbulence by fast mode shock waves, and the subsequent acceleration of charged particles, particularly electrons, in the turbulent wake of a shock. For the first time, we will develop quantitative and testable models of particle energization in turbulence generated and amplified by shocks that is dissipated via reconnection current layers and associated magnetic islands.

Magnetic Reconnection at the Dayside Magnetopause and the Role of Magnetospheric Ions


Michael Denton, NMC Research Scientist

Ions from the magnetosphere are present at the dayside reconnection site. These ions drift to the dayside in the convection electric field from their origin in the plasmasphere, plasma cloak, or the low-latitude boundary layer (LLBL). Theory and observations indicate that these ions reduce the rate of dayside magnetic reconnection although this interaction remains unexplored in detail. The goal of this NASA funded project is to analyze and quantify this effect.