Understanding Auroras: Faculty Research Opens New Doors for Students

The aurora borealis, or northern lights, forms a green band, here over the Yukon Territory, in Canada.
The aurora borealis, or northern lights, forms a green band, here over the Yukon Territory, in Canada.

A key discovery about the complex interactions that drive brilliant auroras will mean new hands-on research opportunities for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University students in Prof. Anatoly Streltsov’s advanced Space Physics classes.

The discovery, reported in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics, used data from multiple spacecraft, including the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Cluster mission, to identify what causes the sudden brightening of auroral ovals before they break up into a substorm. The work, described in an ESA news article, inspired Streltsov, a professor of Engineering Physics, to plan a special research project for students in his EP 410 (fall 2020) and EP 411 (spring 2021) courses.

“Depending on the success with these pilot projects, I will consider whether the research should be included as a permanent part of the curriculum for both classes,” Streltsov said.

The research by Streltsov and Evgeny Mishin of the U.S. Air Force Research Lab “was an important discovery that helped to unravel this long-standing problem in space plasma physics,” said Embry-Riddle Associate Dean of Research and Professor of Physics Dr. Katariina Nykyri. “Since the 1960s, researchers have wanted to understand why the colors of auroras brighten only in a particular place, around the inner edge of the auroral oval, right before the oval breaks up into substorms.”

An auroral “streamer” caused by plasma flow that is flung toward Earth typically signals the breakdown of the oval – a glowing, crescent shape around the poles. Streltsov and Mishin tested a theory to show how plasma flows might be able to penetrate magnetic barriers in space. “When the flow penetrates the plasmasphere where the plasma is dense, the background electrons neutralize, or short circuit the polarization electric fields inside the flow,” Mishin explained.

“As a result,” he continued, “the hot electrons stop but hot ions penetrate further Earthward.”

This article is based on European Space Agency news coverage published on July 31, 2020. Read the full ESA article for further insights to auroras and Streltsov’s study of them.

Posted In: Applied Science | Research | Space