The Sun, Space Weather, and the economic payouts of space science

By on February 3, 2020 in

This week we’re going to be getting a lot of Sunny Excitement as NASA and ESA gear up for the launch of the Solar Orbiter next Sunday. As part of that prep, we’re looking at newly discovered aurora called “The Dunes”, and covering a new UK study on the economic benefits of investing in space science.


Welcome to Monday. The Earth continues to orbit, the Sun continues to shine, and Betelgeuse continues to dim with no signs of going boom.

As January ticks over to February, the days are getting noticeably longer, and we are facing the inextricable contradiction that there is less night, but what night we have is more likely to have aurora. No one completely understands why, but it’s been long noted that there are more visible aurora near the equinoxes in September and March than there are in other times of year. Our best thinking is that the alignment of the Earth’s and Sun’s magnetic fields is just better at the equinoxes, when the earth’s poles are both visible to the Sun. 

While professional scientists are out there trying to understand the overall physics behind aurora, photographers are out there photographing aurora, and it is from this stream of beautiful imagery that unexpected discoveries keep coming. Last May, we talked about “Steve”, an Aurora-like phenomenon that creates a series of parallel lines rising up from the horizon toward zenith. This phenomena was first noted by amateur observers, and eventually sorted by professional astronomers, who linked Steve to electrons pouring into the atmosphere getting spread into lines by the magnetic field.

Now, not even a year later, we have a second new atmospheric effect being identified by aurora chasers in Finland. Named “The Dunes,” this newly noticed form of glow appears as horizontal lines extending away from the normal curtains of aurora, which have streamers reaching up toward zenith. In the video, these bands appear to roil away from the main aurora. 

By having multiple observers scattered over Finland observing this phenomena at the same time, scientists were able to calculate the altitude of “The Dunes” is about 100 km up in the  atmosphere. This altitude was the key to understanding what’s going on. 

According to Minna Palmroth, a space physicist at the University of Helsinki and lead author of the new study, “For the first time we can actually observe atmospheric waves through the aurora – this is something that hasn’t been done before.”

According to the press release, “Palmroth and her colleagues suspect the dunes are visible manifestations of a kind of atmospheric wave called mesospheric bores. … Mesospheric bores are waves that propagate through the atmosphere, like ripples spreading in a pool, creating curls and folds that bend horizontally and spread out over long distances.”

These kinds of waves generally can’t be directly studied because they are too high up to reach with weather balloons. Now, scientists know they can instead be studied during aurora events. This is a new, and stunningly beautiful, way to study our upper atmosphere.

Predicting when aurora are going to happen is part of the science of Space Weather, which includes studying the sun, watching for flares and coronal mass ejections, and predicting how our atmosphere and magnetic field will interact with the particles flung toward us. NASA and ESA are getting ready to launch a new spacecraft to study space weather. Given the bland name of “Solar Orbiter,” this mission is slated to launch Sunday, with numerous press events scattered throughout the week. Where we can, we’ll be bringing you those events live on Twitch.

We often see a ton of news in the lead up to a mission’s launch as the mission team works to build popular support, and engage with the public about their science. What we’re seeing is the side effect of missions being judged, in part, by how popular they are. Hubble was rescued more than once by the public demanding it get serviced and supported. The mission that is now called Fermi, was rescued from the congressional cutting block after people fought to save it when it was still named GLAST. Put simply, it is easier to get support of science and missions from funders if those funders know the public and the press support your science and mission. 

Part of getting this kind of support is selling people on the technological and economic benefits that come from space exploration. From a new press release from the United Kingdom’s Space Agency, we learn that in the UK, they’ve been able to trace 4 pounds in economic benefits back to every 2.5 pounds spent on missions like this still-not-launched Solar Orbiter. 

To quote their key findings,

“The study found that £523 million of UK Space Agency funding put into the European Space Agency’s Space Science Programme (SSP) has generated £1.4 billion of income for UK industry, with a further £1.1 billion from partially attributed and forecast benefits. The investment, between 2000-2018, created 306 jobs. The UK industry regularly secures major ESA contracts to provide mission spacecraft platforms, support mission operations and develop major subsystems.

The report, commissioned by the UK Space Agency, also found the UK’s investments in space science have led to the development of new skills in the sector and improved facilities, such as clean rooms, computing and mechanical equipment.”

While the UK is leaving the EU, it remains part of the European Space Agency, and we look forward to seeing the science that comes as a result of these economic investments in spacecraft needed to explore our skies.


And that rounds out our show for today.

Thank you all for listening. The Daily Space is written by Pamela Gay, produced by Susie Murph, and is a product of the Planetary Science Institute, a 501(c)3 non profit dedicated to exploring our Solar System and beyond. We are here thanks to the generous contributions of people like you. Want to become a supporter of the show? Check us out at 

About Susie Murph

Susie Murph is a Communications Specialist at CosmoQuest. She produces the Astronomy Cast, the Weekly Space Hangout and Daily Space.

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