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Space Physics: The Earth, the Sun, and Everything?


May-Britt Kallenrode is a professor of environmental physics at the University of Osnabrück, Germany. Born in 1962, she studied physics at the University of Kiel. She holds a Ph.D. and Habilitation in extraterrestrial physics, with her first full professorship at the University of Lüneburg, 1997-2000. Her areas of emphasis in research are solar-terrestrial relationships and natural variability of the Earth's atmosphere, and her published works include the comprehensive textbook Space Physics. For Science 's Next Wave, she has explored the opportunities to become a space physicist in Germany and Europe.

In March 1989, the Canadian province of Quebec suffered a total loss of power. However, people were distracted from this mishap by a very bright and beautiful display of aurora, which at least reduced the frightening effects of total darkness. Simultaneously, compasses started to point in almost every direction (except for north) and carrier pigeons struggled to find their way back to their sheds. At the same time, ozone in the upper polar stratosphere was reduced by some 10%. But Earth was not the only affected body: Energetic particle radiation on the moon and in Earth's orbit was high enough to damage a large number of satellites. An astronaut, protected only by her spacesuit, would even have received a lethal radiation dose. Even at the flight altitude of passenger planes, radiation levels increased markedly. Responsible for all these effects: the sun, our nearest star. A strong solar eruption (flares) led to a coronal mass ejection, a humongous cloud of plasma, several times the size of Earth. Propagating at a speed of about 1500 km/s, it hit Earth about one and a half days later. The geomagnetic field, which under normal conditions screens Earth from the impact of space plasma and particles, was compressed and restructured, which led to induction currents on power lines blowing transformers and fuses, misleading compass readings, and those fantastic auroras.

Interested in doing research in such a complex and highly variable environment? Then become a space physicist. We are concerned with understanding the sun and its activity cycle, the solar system with its planets, moons, and comets, and also the interstellar medium--and, of course, the interaction between these different environments as described in the above example of solar-terrestrial relationships. Research is conducted in two ways: Remote sensing uses electromagnetic or particle radiation emitted from objects too far away or too uncomfortable for a direct visit, and in situ measurements performed to understand properties of the local plasma and particles. Theoretical considerations and numerical modeling are essential for interpreting the observations.

There are several ways scientists can get involved in space physics. Extensive research over a broad range of topics in space physics, ranging from the sun and solar-terrestrial relationships to the interstellar medium that involves both scientific analysis and the development of instruments and satellites, is performed at the European Space Agency (ESA). ESA, as well as the Deutsche Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (German Space Center, DLR), offer research opportunities on different levels ranging from practical training to postdoc and senior scientist positions.

In Germany, research is concentrated at the Max Planck Institutes in Lindau, which focuses on the solar system and comets, and Garching, which is specialized on space plasma physics and x-ray astronomy. In addition, the Geoforschungszentrum Potsdam studies the terrestrial magnetic field, its variations including polar reversals and times of weak magnetic field, and the underlying magnetohydrodynamic dynamo.

There is no formal education for a space physicist. Many universities active in space research also offer courses in space science as part of the advanced physics or geophysics education, and space physics can be chosen as a topic for the Diploma thesis. Among those universities with courses that focus on more experimentally oriented research is the University of Braunschweig, which specializes in the geomagnetic field, the magnetosphere, and space plasma physics. Presently, its most challenging mission is CLUSTER-II, a set of four satellites studying waves and small-scale fluctuations in the magnetosphere. The magnetosphere and the planets are also research topics at the University of Cologne. The origin of the solar system is the topic of a graduate college at the University of Münster, and the Institut für Planetologie in Münster focuses on the understanding of the planets and the interplanetary environment, such as dust and meteorites. A different kind of small object, energetic charged particles, are measured from satellites and used as probes for our understanding of acceleration and propagation processes at the University of Kiel.

Theoretical research in space physics is undertaken at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum, with foci on heliospheric structure and particle acceleration and propagation, and at the University of Bonn. Here the focus is on cosmology, interplanetary space, and the upper atmosphere (thermosphere and ionosphere). The Radio Astronomisches Institut in Bonn conducts solar system research with satellites and the 100-meter telescope at Effelsberg. Radioastronomy of the sun and the solar system also is performed both theoretically and experimentally at the Astrophyikalisches Institut in Potsdam.

Space physics is an active field of research and many new and exciting missions are planned. NASA has developed its Living With a Star program to study solar-terrestrial relationships in detail. Probably the most challenging missions are Solar Probe, a satellite to fly through the sun's atmosphere, and Interstellar Probe, a satellite to explore interstellar space. ESA also plans a number of new missions to explore the sun, the planets, and interplanetary space, such as Solar Orbiter and many others. With these missions, not only new scientific questions will be addressed, but they also provide technical challenges like solar sailing as a new means of propagation and the development of small and lightweight components for instruments and spacecraft.

Thus challenges in space physics are many; however, the job market is a mixed bag. There are ample opportunities at the doctorate and postdoc levels at both universities and research institutions. Positions for senior scientists and permanent positions, however, are sparse; basically resulting from the regulations imposed by the German BAT. This might change in the near future because many space physicists in permanent positions will retire. For people with a strong interest in the more technical aspects, like instrument development or mission design, long-term prospects in the job market are much better, because both the large agencies as well as industry offer many opportunities.

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