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Home > Research > Space Physics

Space Physics

Space Physics at Dartmouth consists of experimental and theoretical research groups in Physics and Astronomy and at the Thayer School of Engineering, which study the near Earth space environment, including phenomena such as the Northern (and Southern) Lights and the Van Allen radiation belts. Our dynamic variable star, the Sun, with an 11-year cycle of sunspot activity, drives phenomena in the Earth's atmosphere, ionosphere and magnetosphere, the cavity which the Earth's magnetic field carves out in the Sun's expanding atmosphere or solar wind. The experimental groups in Physics and Astronomy (LaBelle, Lynch, Millan) measure waves, energetic charged particles and x-rays using ground-based, rocket and balloon platforms, while theoretical and computational modeling of "space weather" and magnetospheric processes is carried out by Denton, Kress, Hudson, Lyon, Müller and students. Fundamental plasma physics processes creating disruptions in fusion plasmas also cause solar flares and create night-time "explosions" of aurora across the polar sky. The phenomenon of "magnetic reconnection" which converts magnetic field energy into particle kinetic energy is the focus of Roger's group.


Mary Hudson studies space weather patterns that originate from solar eruptions following energy and mass transfers through the interplanetary medium all the way the the Earth's ionosphere. Current investigations focus on the evolution of the Van Allen radiation belts.

Barrett Rogers's space physics research focuses on the physics of magnetic reconnection, particle acceleration, global magnetosphere simulations, turbulent cascades, and fluid and kinetic simulations of plasma instabilities.


James LaBelle's research focuses on measurements of plasma waves using NASA sounding rockets and ground-based radio techniques to remotely sense ionospheric plasma processes. The ground-based research is deployed at remote locations including Antarctica, Greenland, Alaska and Northern Canada. LaBelle has active collaborations with groups in North America and Europe.

Kristina Lynch's research focuses on the plasma physics of the Northern Lights. She uses the lower ionosphere as a laboratory for studying interactions between plasmas and probes, between the magnetosphere and the ionosphere. In the laboratory, her students can generate an ionospheric-like plasma in a large vacuum chamber called "the Elephant".

Robyn Millan's research focuses on energetic particles in astrophysical settings. Millan's current experiment (BARREL) will study the Earth's radiation belts using a flotilla of balloons launched from Antarctica.

Launch of BARREL test flight from McMurdo Station, Antarctica in December, 2009.

GreenCube flight over the white mountains. This is from just after the balloon burst at 30 km altitude (90 thousand feet), using an onboard go-pro camera that was recovered on landing.

Research and Adjunct Faculty

Richard Denton does computational plasma physics, concentrating on the region of space near to the Earth called the magnetosphere. Current projects include nonlinear simulation of magnetospheric plasma waves, and the development of techniques for global magnetohydrodynamic simulations.

Brian Kress's research is primarily focused on numerical modeling of the geospace environment, including radiation belt dynamics and transport of solar and galactic cosmic rays in the Earth's magnetosphere. Additional research includes computational fluid dynamics, hydrodynamic turbulence and nonlinear dynamics.

Bill Lotko's research within the broader field of geospace science focuses on system-level studies of the solar wind-magnetosphere-ionosphere interaction, its plasma electrodynamics, magnetohydrodynamics, and collisionless transport processes, with applications to space weather prediction.

John Lyon developed the Lyon-Fedder-Mobarry 3D global MHD code for simulation interaction of the Earth's ionosphere and magnetosphere with solar wind plasma. It includes multiple ion species and is coupled to an ionospheric model developed at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and to the Rice Convection Model of the inner magnetosphere. It is now available for runs on demand at NASA's Community Coordinated Modeling Center and is used by researchers worldwide.

Hans Müller investigates the heliosphere, the cavity which the solar wind carves out in the surrounding interstellar medium. With large-scale plasma and neutral kinetic simulations, he explores the physics of the heliosphere, in particular the heliospheric boundaries beyond the planetary system and the entrance of the neutral component of the interstellar gas into the heliosphere. These same tools are also applied to the study of stellar winds elsewhere in the Galaxy.

Some of our recent publications...