Outflowing ionospheric plasma forms a dense cloud of cold plasma in Earth’s inner magnetosphere, as seen in this EUV image of the plasmasphere from the SwRI-led IMAGE mission. Magnetosphere-ionosphere coupling is an area of active research in the Division.
The SwRI-led Juno mission to Jupiter will study the electrical currents that couple the jovian ionosphere and magnetosphere, producing the powerful jovian aurora and transferring the planet’s rotational energy to the magnetosphere.
An all-sky map of the heliospheric boundary showing the mysterious ribbon of energetic neutral atom emissions produced by the solar wind/LISM interaction. The ribbon was discovered by the SwRI-led IBEX mission and is the subject of ongoing research.
Since the beginning of the Institute’s space research program in 1977, Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) scientists have played a major role in the efforts of the international space science community to characterize and understand Earth’s space environment and its interaction with the solar wind, the continuous outflow of magnetized plasma from the Sun’s atmosphere (corona). Within this outflow, the geomagnetic field forms a bubble-like structure, the magnetosphere, which contains plasmas originating in both the ionosphere and the solar wind and whose dynamics are driven by energy extracted from the solar wind. Disturbances in the magnetosphere can disrupt power grids on the ground, leading to blackouts, and interfere with operation of communications and navigation satellites. Understanding the complex physical processes at work in the geospace environment is thus both scientifically compelling and of practical importance in enabling society to mitigate the effects of “space weather” on critical technologies.
SwRI researchers are also studying the magnetospheres of Jupiter and Saturn, which differ from Earth’s with respect both to the major plasma sources (the volcanic moons Io in the case of Jupiter and Enceladus in the case of Saturn) and to the energy source (planetary rotation instead of the solar wind). Other major research initiatives in the Division address questions concerning the properties and structure of the solar wind and its interactions with the Local Interstellar Medium (LISM) as well as with unmagnetized solar system bodies (comets, Pluto). The Division’s research portfolio has recently been expanded to include high-energy astrophysics as well.
Many of the phenomena studied by space scientists (e.g., the aurora, magnetic storms, solar activity) were the object of scientific investigation long before the beginning of the space age. However, space science did not truly emerge as a distinct scientific discipline until, beginning with the launch of Explorer 1 in 1958, humankind had the ability to make in-situ measurements of the plasmas that populate the solar system. Designing and developing missions and instruments to make such direct, in-situ measurements and analyzing the data from these and other sources form, together with the development of remote-sensing instrumentation, the core of SwRI’s space research program.
Science Technical Strengths
- Solar wind and heliosphere
- Planetary magnetospheres
- Planetary atmospheres
- Supernovae and gamma ray bursts