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New Centre of Excellence – space science:

The sky is the limit for space research centre

The Birkeland Centre for Space Science (BCSS) in Bergen is reaching for the skies, more specifically for near space, the zone a few hundred kilometres above the Earth’s surface.

The distance may be modest in terms of general space research, but their ambitions are lofty enough: with their point of departure in four questions, four space research group heads are out to make new discoveries in space. Among their aspirations is to come up with a new, more accurate model of the ionosphere to replace the cruder model dating from the 1970s and, as earlier theories have been proven false, to find new answers to how the Earth is coupled to the rest of space.

Scientific publication and job satisfaction

A stated target for each head of research is to be the lead author for one scientific article per year. Moreover, the new Centre of Excellence (SFF) is meant to be an enjoyable place to work.

“This latter aim is at least as important as our scientific objectives,” says Centre Director Nikolai Østgaard. “We are seeking to create an atmosphere that fosters creative thinking and openness to change and new ideas. The best research is often the result of chance.”

Photo: Shutterstock OUT OF A CLEAR SKY: Lightning strikes the Earth approximately 45 times each second, yet we know very little about it. Researchers at the Birkeland Centre for Space Science are planning to rectify this. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Understanding the asymmetry between the northern and southern lights

The big mystery the centre seeks to shed light on is the relationship between Earth and space. There are still fundamental gaps in our understanding of how our own planet is connected with the rest of outer space. Modern technology and new imaging and satellite data can provide new insights.

Some answers may be found in the northern lights above the northern hemisphere and the southern lights above the southern hemisphere. It was long presumed that these were mirror images of one another. However, this changed in 2009; the space researchers from the centre in Bergen won a spot on the cover of Nature when they presented findings refuting these beliefs.

“The answer to our connection with space may lie somewhere in the asymmetry between the northern and southern lights,” Dr Østgaard states.

Particle precipitation affects the atmosphere

Outer space is filled with energetic electrically charged particles. They are moved around by solar winds and cosmic rays in a complex dance. When solar winds and cosmic rays come in contact with the Earth’s atmosphere, the collision generates a number of new particles that shower down towards Earth – mostly close to the Poles where magnetic activity is highest.

“The resulting barrage of energetic particles leads to the transfer of energy deep down inside the atmosphere in an area popularly dubbed the “ignorosphere” since we know so little about it. This particle precipitation affects both the temperature and the chemistry of the atmosphere. In other words, more insight into particle showers from space could hold the key to understanding climate development on Earth. This is therefore another area on which we intend to focus our research efforts,” says Dr Østgaard.

Photo: UiB We are seeking to create an atmosphere that fosters creative thinking and openness to change and new ideas. The best research is often the result of chance, says Nikolai Østgaard (Photo: UiB)

Studying thunderstorms

Terrestrial gamma-ray flashes (TGFs) occurring during thunderstorms will also come under the scrutiny of researchers at the new centre.

The amount of electric activity discharged during thunderstorms is tremendous. Powerful bursts of electricity also occur above the thunderstorms. When lightning from a cloud strikes the ground it leaves a wide electrical field above the clouds. The electrons from this field move upwards in the atmosphere and create unique light phenomena with names such as elves, sprites and blue jets. Such light phenomena have long been reported by pilots, but it was only towards the end of the 1980s that they were documented scientifically.

The knowledge that gamma rays also emanate from the Earth during thunderstorms is relatively new. NASA discovered this by chance in 1990 when it launched equipment to capture rays from remote galaxies into space. What they found instead was gamma radiation originating from the Earth during a thunderstorm. NASA scientists first thought there might be a fault with the measuring device. But this was not the case. The TGFs will now be the target of comprehensive study at the Birkeland Centre.

The BCSS will be examining how gamma radiation and relativistic particles are produced, how often this occurs and what their impact is on the temperature and chemistry of the atmosphere. The Centre is building instruments to be used on the International Space Station to measure gamma rays. In addition, they plan to participate in a balloon campaign over Central America in order to learn more about thunderstorms.

A new parameterisation of the ionosphere

The space researchers are also working to develop a new model of near space. The models of the current system in the outer layers of the atmosphere presently in use date from the 1970s. Better parameterisation allows for more precise calculations of the interactions between solar winds and the various layers of the Earth's atmosphere.

Birkeland Centre for Space Science (BCSS)
  • Objective: To discover the coupling between Earth and outer space
  • Centre director: Professor Nikolai Østgaard
  • Partners: University of Bergen, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, University Centre in Svalbard
  • Annual allocation from the Research Council of Norway: NOK 16 million
  • Total person-years: 46
  • Number of doctoral degrees planned: 20


Written by:
Synnøve Bolstad/Else Lie. Translation: Glenn Wells/Carol B. Eckmann
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