The Space Science and Engineering Laboratory (SSEL) place instruments into the environment to directly measure the plasmas, fields, and energetic charged particles in space or to remotely sense radiated emissions from distant plasma interactions. SSEL instruments are carried into space on satellites designed and built by SSEL students and staff, and by sounding rockets, and high altitude balloons. SSEL hardware has flown on NASA sounding rockets, NASA scientific research satellites, on International Space Station, and on our own small satellites to measure energetic charged particles and faint light emissions from plasma interactions in the ionosphere. X-rays generated in the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere in association with the intense belts of penetrating radiation that girdle Earth, are measured by instruments carried aloft on high flying stratospheric balloons. MSU-designed and built imaging spectrographic telescopes are flown on sounding rockets from NASA’s white Sands, New Mexico launch range to examine extreme Ultraviolet emissions from active regions on the Sun.
The Experimental Space Physics group seeks to understand the fundamental physics of space plasma interactions and the causes and the consequential effects of extremely dynamic variations that give rise to constantly changing Space Weather near Earth. The solar flares and coronal mass ejections studied by the Solar Physics group disturb Earth’s magnetosphere and ionosphere. Along with a multitude of other effects, energetic charged particles trapped in the Van Allen Radiation Belts around Earth are destabilized causing some of them to rain down on the Earth’s upper atmosphere, depositing energy and producing X-Rays as they interact with neutral atmospheric atoms and molecules. Measurements made by the Space Physics Group contribute to further understanding of these effects. Improved understanding will lead to better models and, some day, to an improved ability to predict Space Weather events days in advance.
Solar Physics research overlaps with both Astronomy and Space
Physics. It is astronomy because the Sun is a star. It is space physics because the Sun is the source of the solar wind and disturbances within it that produce what we know as space weather. The Solar Physics group studies the process of magnetic reconnection as it occurs in solar flares and in the generation of coronal mass ejections (CMEs) whereby vast amounts of magnetized plasma are launched into space. Solar Physicists at MSU are actively involved in current and future NASA space missions, developing new instrumentation, operating spacecraft on orbit, collecting and analyzing data. They use spacecraft observations of the Sun in gamma rays, X-rays and extreme ultraviolet to study these dramatic events. MSU researchers have pioneered techniques for using spacecraft observations of these events to compute the electric field responsible for them. They use this measurement to understand the energy release in flares and the acceleration of mass in CMEs. They have also developed theoretical models to explain how the energy stored in the Sun's magnetic field is rapidly converted to heat, driving the flare plasma to temperatures above 40 million Kelvin.