Space Physics

Space Physics

Probing plasma phenomena across our solar system

Solid, liquid, gas… and plasma. The fourth state of matter, which comprises 99% of the material in the universe, is like a gas, composed of individual particles. But there’s an important difference: the particles in space plasmas are charged. In space plasmas particle collisions are rare, so they move primarily under the influence of electromagnetic forces.

Because plasmas in near-Earth space can hamper modern technologies, it’s crucial for our society to understand the processes occurring within them. LASP researchers combine ground- and spacecraft-based observations with cutting-edge simulations to understand fundamental plasma physics as well as how energy moves between plasmas in our solar system—for example, how material ejected from the Sun interacts with Earth’s magnetosphere.

LASP is also at the forefront of mission and instrument design to obtain the data necessary to further our understanding of space plasmas and its societal implications. We were recently selected to build AETHER, a probe that will make crucial measurements of electron temperature and density of near-Earth plasma, for NASA’s upcoming Geospace Dynamics Constellation mission, and are co-developing SunCET, a CubeSat that will examine how massive solar explosions accelerate.

Other ongoing space physics research includes:

  • Elucidating the physical processes that create the aurora and STEVE
  • Studying the origins and dynamics of the Van Allen radiation belts
  • Understanding the interactions between solar-wind plasma and magnetic obstacles, such as the magnetospheres of Earth and Mercury
  • Evaluating the interactions of the solar wind with weakly or non-magnetic objects like Mars and the Moon
  • Examining the transport and conversion of energy in space plasmas
  • Probing the evolution and origin of the solar wind over time and space