Fine-scale auroral structure: Causes and effects

The beautiful displays of the Earth’s auroras are formed as a result of the interaction between the solar wind, the Earth’s magnetic field and the atmosphere. Electrically charged particles are funnelled into the atmosphere, where they hit atoms and molecules in the atmosphere. Some of the energy transferred in these collisions is given off as light, which is what provides the auroral displays.

The aurora is fascinatingly rich in structure (down to horizontal scale sizes of tens of metres), with fast motions and changes of colour. This structure is indicative of rapid changes in the way that energy is deposited into the upper atmosphere. The cause of structuring at such fine scales is unclear, and understanding the cause is one of the objectives of this research. We will investigate the structuring processes in the aurora by using very high resolution auroral cameras which the University of Southampton operates in the Arctic, and comparing these observations with state-of-the-art simulations. The cameras are called ASK (Auroral Structure and Kinetics), and by providing high time and spatial resolution images of the aurora in a frame approximately 5×5 km (at 100 km altitude), we can image the aurora down to a resolution of ~10m. ASK consists of three cameras which provide the same image at different wavelengths. By comparing the images at different wavelengths, we can glean much information about the energy of the precipitating particles which are stimulating the aurora, and calculate information about the local fine-scale ionospheric flows. These parameters are then used as input to theoretical models, which allow us to determine the processes which give rise to auroral structuring. In the second half of the project we will also exploit the first data from a new state-of-the-art radar system called EISCAT_3D, which provides observations of the radar analogues of the auroral structure we will examine on a spatial scale approaching that of ASK itself. EISCAT_3D is a major new European facility which is currently being built; its ‘first light’ will occur in 2022. The structuring of the aurora indicates underlying structuring of electric fields and currents which have a number of important consequences, such as causing changes to the rate at which the upper atmosphere is heated, which in turn has implications for modelling of climate change and prediction of satellite orbit decay. Therefore, the spatial and temporal variability of precipitating charged particles is at the heart of the physics of the behaviour of the upper atmosphere.

Grant reference
Natural Environment Research Council
Total awarded
£68,234 GBP
Start date
31 Mar 2022
2 years 11 months 30 days
End date
30 Mar 2025