31.12. 2012

Periodic Report Summary 2012 - SHOCK (Solar and Heliospheric Collisionless Kinetics: Enabling Data Analysis of the Sun to Earth Plasma System with Kinetic Modelling)

Posted by: David Burgess
Understanding space weather is important in order to better protect telecommunications and power distribution networks. New research is developing simulations and modelling software to better understand how the Sun influences space weather in our solar system.
Various exploration missions have seen a vast amount of data gathered on space plasma, the high-energy ionised gas ejected from the Sun. Space plasma is responsible for space weather, so understanding the small-scale kinetic changes in plasma will help to predict space weather and protect telecommunication systems.
The EU-funded SHOCK project is creating large-scale models to achieve this understanding. The project aims to build a community of researchers in the field by improving computational ability, establishing simulations and models, and advancing a basic understanding of plasma processes.
A virtual mission laboratory has been designed, which can be used to visualise simulations of plasma kinetics. Researchers have begun initial work on the new simulation programmes, which will be used in conjunction with this laboratory.
Results on the study of the interaction between plasma and Mercury's magnetosphere have been generated and compared with NASA's MESSENGER mission data. Some research has also been conducted into the effects of the solar wind on the Earth's magnetosphere.
Once the simulations and models are completed, the project will investigate turbulence and fluid dynamics, as well as improve our understanding of the physical processes of solar wind. The data generated will be invaluable in predicting space weather in the solar system, which will help to protect telecommunication networks as well as future space missions.
Project context and objectives:
The Heliosphere is the region of space around the Sun which is dominated by the magnetic field and plasma (ionized gas) coming from the Sun. The supersonic plasma flow - the solar wind - encounters all the planets in the solar system and carves out a region of space where dynamic behaviour on the sun can affect other parts of the plasma system. The Sun-to-Earth path links terrestrial geomagnetic activity to solar activity and usually is termed Space Weather. Current technological aspects of society such as communications and power distribution systems can be affected by Space Weather events. Understanding the plasma behaviour of the Heliosphere also leads to a better understanding of distant astrophysical systems which are dominated by plasma behaviour. Due to the wealth of space exploration there is, at the present time, a vast store of collected data from robotic space plasma missions. In terms of fundamental plasma physics there is also an increasing awareness that kinetic processes at small length scales and short time scales are crucial for a proper understanding of the fundamental processes which govern the dynamics of heliospheric plasmas from the solar corona outwards. Kinetic processes are those where the behaviour of the particles (ions and electrons) which compose the plasma have to be taken into account. The resulting complex behaviour can often only be fully understood with the help of massive scale computer simulations. This project aims to bring the ideas of a wealth of data and a kinetic plasma description together in order to better understand the behaviour of heliospheric plasma systems.

The aims of the project are:
- To take forward the state of the art in research using kinetic plasma simulations of space plasma systems, so that new models are developed and exploited allowing the synergies between data analysis and code validation to emerge.
- To provide a focus for the increased use of kinetic simulations in enhancing space data analysis for European Space Agency (ESA) missions such as Cluster, Cassini, Ulysses, Helios, BepiColombo, and Solar Orbiter, but also for international missions such as Themis, MMS, Solar Probe Plus, etc.
- To improve our knowledge and understanding of the Sun to Earth plasma system, and fundamental processes such as turbulence, shocks, particle acceleration and reconnection, which have relevance for other astrophysical environments.

Our vision is to build new European community of researchers in Sun Earth plasma system centred on kinetic plasma simulation and data analysis. This involves several themes: Building capability in new computational techniques; advancing understanding of basic plasma processes; increasing the use of modelling and simulation in the European data analysis community; and using results of mission modelling and data analysis as a tool for Public Outreach.

Project results:
In the first year the following has been accomplished:
- Highly functional project website operational for both project partners and general public.
- Prototype of Virtual Mission Laboratory, allowing visualization of simulation results from the point of view of a virtual spacecraft mission.
- Research results studying the interaction of the solar wind with the Mercury magnetosphere, allowing comparison with results from the NASA MESSENGER mission.
- Research results using simulations to study the evolution of discontinuities in the solar wind and the role of the tearing instability.
- Development of a new computer simulation code based on a finite Larmor radius Landau fluid approach, which will be used for later stages of project.
- Research results on the rapid growth of pulsations in the collisionless shock as found in the interaction of the solar wind with the Earth's magnetosphere.
- As part of the management for the project, the following has also been produced: Dissemination Strategy, Scientific and Technical Coordination Strategy, Self-assessment strategy, Data Analysis review, VML Portal planning document.

The project has produced:
- 18 international conference presentations
- 7 papers published or under review in refereed scientific journals

Potential impact:
By the end of the project we will have created software tools which will present a Virtual Mission Laboratory so that large-scale kinetic simulations can be used as a tool for scientific analysis of data from space missions. The same software will enable public access to the simulation results, serving as public outreach for the aims of the project. The project will also have contributed to a better understanding of the kinetic plasma physical processes which control the region of space dominated by the Sun known as the heliosphere. The project will make important contributions to understanding the following major problems: turbulence in the solar wind and its effect on plasma heating and evolution; the interaction of the solar wind with obstacles in the solar wind such as Mercury; the physical processes controlling boundary layers in the heliospheric plasma system such as shocks and reconnection layers. The project will also make advances in the software development of innovative models for simulating heliospheric plasmas. These results will have potential impact for scientists using heliospheric data from spacecraft missions, including upcoming missions such as Solar Orbiter and Solar Probe Plus. There will also be potential impact for the general public in having access to web tools which given them an insight into the science behind the interaction of the Sun with planets through the solar wind.

List of websites:

Link to Periodic Report Summary at CORDIS EU Research Projects website:
  • 7
  • ERA
  • ESA
  • Queen Mary
  • CNRS
  • ASU
  • Sprinx systems
  • University of St. Andrews