Mentors and Projects

Bringing together top space science students with internationally recognized researchers at Los Alamos in an educational, collaborative atmosphere


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Students work closely with their mentors, who are Laboratory scientists, on challenging research projects in the Space Weather Summer School.

Projects are related to current research topics in space weather, planetary science, numerical methods, instrumentation and sensing, and other areas, with access to Los Alamos satellite and instrument data.

Student projects from past years are detailed in the Space Weather Summer School research reports.

2018 mentors and projects

Students are highly encouraged to contact potential mentors before applying to discuss the mentor's suggested projects and your own project ideas.

Program details »

Carver, Matthew
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General Interests Solar energetic particle events, space weather (and its effects on ground systems​), space instrumentation, data analysis
Suggested Project Topics

GPS Energetic Particle Data Analysis

This topic will focus on using the newly released energetic particle data from GPS satellites to analyze how Solar Energetic Particle (SEP) access changes with geomagnetic activity. The large number of satellites in the constellation coupled with a 4 min data cadence offers a unique opportunity to probe geomagnetic cutoffs at previously unavailable levels. Comparisons to analytic models will help provide validation to experimentally derived results. As time provides, the topic can be expanded to investigating ground level effects of increased particle access during strong geomagnetic activity.  This project is co-mentored with Steve Morley.

Cowee, Misa
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General Interests Hybrid, particle-in-cell, and test particle simulations of space plasmas, plasma waves and instabilities, planetary magnetospheres, artificial radiation belts.
Suggested Project Topics

Test particle simulations of magnetic field line curvature in the inner magnetosphere

The loss of ring current ions by magnetic field line curvature (FLC) scattering, also known as mu-scattering, occurs when the gyroradius of the ion is large compared to the radius of curvature of the magnetic field line, leading to non-adiabatic motion of ions. Previous studies have shown that FLC scattering can play a major role in the rapid loss of ring current ions. For example, Ebihara et al. [2011] found that by including FLC scattering their simulation reproduced the rapid Dst recovery observed during the August 2000 storm (time scale of ~6 hr); however, without FLC scattering, the simulated Dst recovered much slower with a time scale of ~12 hr. This is a significant result that suggests FLC scattering needs to be characterized and eventually included in ring current models in order to accurately predict inner magnetosphere plasmas during geomagnetic storms. This project would involve better quantification of this loss mechanism for the ring current using direct test particle simulations of the cumulative effects of FLC scattering.  This project is co-mentored with Miles Engel.

Cunningham, Gregory
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General Interests Radiation belt physics, including ULF/VLF wave-particle interactions that cause radial diffusion, energization and loss of energetic electrons
Suggested Project Topics

Radiation belt diffusion in nondipolar magnetic fields

Use DREAM3D code on LANL’s high-performance computing cluster to assess whether the radial diffusion coefficients developed in a recent JGR paper [Cunningham, G. S. (2016), Radial diffusion of radiation belt particles in nondipolar magnetic fields, J. Geophys. Res. Space Physics, 121, doi:10.1002/2015JA021981], are needed to explain the observed loss of MeV electrons for certain GEM events

Fernandes, Philip
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General Interests Magnetospheric plasma physics, space plasma characterization and ion mass spectrometry, impact of heavy ions on magnetospheric processes
Suggested Project Topics

Characterizing the Newly Discovered Heavy Ion Afternoon Bulge using HOPE

Recently published statistical observations of plasma composition near the Earth indicate the presence of a structured population rich in 10 keV Oxygen ions and super-rich in 10 keV Helium ions. This “afternoon bulge” population is located in the afternoon and dusk sectors at a few earth radii in the equatorial plane of the magnetosphere. This population is present during geomagnetically quiet times and is not observed during geomagnetically active times. Analysis using ion drift path models indicates that ions may gain access to this region during active times, then become trapped during quiet times.

This study expands on these statistical observations by analyzing additional energy channels near 10 keV and exploring several case studies. Specifically, we will characterize the structure of the afternoon bulge by examining times when the Van Allen Probes spacecraft cross the afternoon bulge structure. We will characterize the structure of the afternoon bulge during geomagnetically quiet and active times. Combining those observations with sophisticated modeling of ion drift paths will allow us to identify formation mechanisms for the afternoon bulge and characterize its persistence across varying geomagnetic conditions.

Gary, Peter
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General Interests Kinetic theory, plasma waves and instabilities, short-wavelength turbulence in space plasmas
Suggested Project Topics

Electron and Ion Heating by Short-Wavelength Turbulence

An essential element of Space Weather is the use of computational models to predict evolution of the solar wind as it flows from the Sun to the Earth and beyond.  An essential element of such models is the accurate representation of the turbulent magnetic field dissipation and the consequent heating of the electrons and ions of the interplanetary medium.  Recent computational research has addressed the problem of turbulent dissipation in collisionless plasmas such as the solar wind, and my recent collaborations with Dr. Joseph Wang and his students has yielded results providing important insights into such dissipation.  Specifically, the particle-in-cell simulations described in Gary et al. [2016] and Hughes et al. {2017a, 2017b] compare the heating of electrons and ions by whistler and kinetic Alfven turbulence using three-dimensional particle-in-cell (PIC) simulations. The computations follow the temporal evolution of the fluctuations as they cascade into broadband turbulent spectra at shorter wavelengths where they dissipate and heat the various plasma species.  Our work has shown the expected result that whistler turbulence preferentially heats the electrons, but has also demonstrated that kinetic Alfven turbulence preferentially heats the ions, which is contrary to some results of other simulation models.  We believe that, by comparison against the more approximate models of other research teams, the three dimensional PIC simulation code of Dr. Wang provides a superior representation of this dissipation, and that the use of this code to further study this problem will provide leading steps toward solving the challenging problem of turbulent heating of the solar wind.

The student should have previous experience in running PIC simulations of plasma dynamics. The thrust of the student’s research during the Summer School will be, first, to become familiar with the specifics of PIC simulations as applied to plasma turbulence problems, and second to use a PIC simulation code to examine how electron and ion heating rates vary for simulation domains large enough to permit long-wavelength magnetosonic turbulence as well as short-wavelength kinetic range turbulence to undergo forward cascades and heat the various plasma species.

Guo, Fan
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General Interests

Fully kinetic, hybrid, MHD, and particle transport simulations of heliospheric plasma processes including those in solar flares, CMEs and solar wind

Suggested Project Topics

Kinetic Simulations of Particle Energization during Magnetic Reconnection Kinetic Simulations Particle Acceleration in Collisionless Shocks

Henderson, Michael
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General Interests Magnetospheric physics, numerical modeling and techniques
Suggested Project Topics

Ground Magnetic Perturbations Associated with Auroral Disturbances

Strong magnetic perturbations on the ground are a prime cause of Geomagnetically-Induced Currents (GICs) that can have catastrophic effects on a number of engineered technological systems like power grids, communication lines, railways, and pipelines. In recent years we have learned that the strongest dB/dt signals may be confined to relatively localized regions. A number of localized auroral phenomena are known to occur during highly disturbed intervals including substorms, pseudo-breakups, auroral streamers, torches and omega bands. This project will examine whether any of these types of disturbances can be responsible for the localized dB/dt signals associated with harmful GIC events.

Dealing with Shabansky Orbits in Drift-Shell and L* Calculations

Energetic charged particles trapped in the Earth’s Van Allen Radiation Belts (RBs): (1) gyrate around magnetic field lines, (2) bounce between “mirror points” along magnetic field lines (there are mirror points in the northern and southern hemispheres) and (3) drift around the Earth.  As the particles travel, they “zig-zag” their way around the Earth in helical trajectories that trace out complex “doughnut-shaped” drift shells.  Calculating the shape of these drift shells is important for the analysis of numerous radiation belt acceleration and loss  processes.  However, a currently unresolved problem is how one deals with special drift orbits known as "Shabansky Orbits". These occur for particles that have sufficiently high pitch angles that pass close to the dayside magnetopause current systems. This project will explore methods for dealing with Shabansky orbits when computing drift shells and the 3rd adiabatic invariant, L*.

Jeffery, Christopher
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General Interests Ultra-low frequency waves, magnetosphere-ionosphere coupling, ionosphere electrodynamics, geomagnetic disturbances
Suggested Project Topics

Modeling low-frequency electromagnetic wave propagation through the ionosphere to the ground

Electromagnetic disturbances on the ground are frequently the result of processes elsewhere in the magnetosphere-ionosphere system that propagate Earthward as low-frequency electromagnetic waves. A complete model of this propagation requires considering both the complex electrodynamic processes in the ionosphere as well as the effects of the structured conducting ground. For this project, the student will use tools developed at LANL to study how the characteristics of the magnetosphere-ionosphere-ground system affect the observable signatures of magnetospheric processes (e.g., substorms).  This project is co-mentored with Jesse Woodroffe.

Jordanova, Vania
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General Interests Physics of the inner magnetosphere, energetic particles, wave-particle interactions, numerical modelinG

Suggested Project Topics

Particle Injections During Storms and Substorms

To understand the injection of energetic particles during storms and substorms, we will carry out simulations with our large-scale kinetic inner magnetosphere model RAM-SCB coupled with a Particle Tracing Model. The model results will be validated through comparisons with observations from the Van Allen Probes and GEO satellites.

Lay, Erin
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General Interests Ionospheric response to input from above and below (solar inputs, meteors, tropospheric events). Ionospheric scintillation, gravity waves, and acoustic waves. Radio wave propagation through ionosphere.
Suggested Project Topics

Probing lower ionospheric changes using lightning as ‘radar’

The lower ionosphere (D-region, 60-100 km altitude) is difficult to probe since the ionization is too low to affect most radar signals in the MHz range. Instead, one needs kHz signals to probe the densities in the D-region. We have developed a method at LANL to use lightning strokes, which emit strongly in the kHz regime, to determine the profile of the D-region on a local scale, with a time resolution of tens of minutes. This technique requires use of recorded lightning waveforms. Earth Networks Total Lightning Network records lightning waveforms at hundreds of thousands of stations around the world. This project would involve adapting the previously developed technique to be able to use this huge amount of lightning data to study the ionosphere and its changes worldwide. Then a case study of an interesting region would look more in depth at local changes with high time and spatial resolution. This project is only open to U.S. persons.

Comparison between VHF propagation modeling and measurement

This ionosphere delays and bends radio signals propagating through it. The amount of delay and bending is frequency-dependent. A detected, dispersed broadband signal that propagated through the ionosphere can give a significant amount of information about the medium through which it travelled. We have a developed a realistic ray-tracing code that includes time delay and ray bending for VHF (30-300 MHz) signals. We also have many archived trans-ionospheric broadband signals detected by the FORTE satellite. This project would compare measurement and model under various ionospheric conditions to better understand the shortfalls of the model.  This project is only open to U.S. persons.

Larsen, Brian
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General Interests Magnetospheric physics, instrument development
Suggested Project Topics

Space weather particle instrumentation

There are various project topics in this area related characterizing uncertainty in the measurements and evaluating instrument calibration techniques.

Towards actionable radiation belt forecasting

Statistical study of the inner edge of the plasmasphere

Morley, Steve
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General Interests Electron radiation belt dynamics, substorm phenomenology, space weather prediction, ionospheric currents systems and convection, inferential statistics and machine learning in magnetospheric physics, data analysis and techniques
Suggested Project Topics

Field-aligned currents and auroral precipitation

Auroral boundaries have been routinely derived from the DMSP satellite precipitating particle sensor for decades, and the same boundaries can be determined from the TIMED Global UltraViolet Imager. Large-scale field-aligned currents (FACs) can be derived from magnetometer data from various satellites including the DMSP fleet, CHAMP and FedSat. During the solar maximum of solar cycle 23, TIMED, CHAMP, FedSat and several DMSP satellites were all operational and observed a wide range of geomagnetic activity, including some very large storms. This project will combine global estimates of the location of the auroral oval (from DMSP and TIMED) with measurements of large-scale FACs (from CHAMP, FedSat and DMSP) to investigate the dynamics of FACs relative to auroral boundaries, including the local time asymmetry of the FAC locations relative to auroral boundaries, and the changes in these relationships with geomagnetic activity.

Probabilistic forecasting of space weather phenomena using machine learning

The forecasts issued by agencies such as NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center often categorize events of interest. They provide forecasts and define levels of activity by thresholds in quantities such as the energetic proton flux, solar X-ray flux and Kp. Most space weather models, whether physical or empirical, provide a deterministic prediction of a continuous variable. A potentially useful approach is to instead predict the likelihood of exceeding a given threshold in a certain time window (e.g., there is a 60% chance of Kp exceeding 5 in the next 6 hours). This project will use machine learning methods for classification to provide probabilistic models for space weather, trained and tested on historical data. Development of successful models also provides valuable feedback on whether an input "feature" is really important for predicting the output, leading to both useful tools and new insights in the driving of space weather phenomena.

Rapid dropouts and enhancements of the electron radiation belt

The Van Allen Probes mission has enabled significant new discoveries in radiation belt physics, but the orbital period of the two satellites provides an inherent limitation in resolving rapid temporal changes in the radiation belts. The GPS constellation provides an additional 23 satellites in medium-Earth orbit, across six orbital planes, that are instrumented with energetic particle detectors. Combining the excellent spatial and temporal coverage of GPS with the high-quality ECT instrument suite on Van Allen Probes enables an unprecedented look at the timescales of changes in radiation belt fluxes across a wide range of L. By combining these data sets, and comparing to models (e.g. radial diffusion), we can constrain the physical processes acting to drive rapid enhancements and dropouts.

Nowicki, Suzanne
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General Interests

Planetary science, nuclear instrumentation, gamma-ray spectroscopy, Compton imaging

Suggested Project Topics

Development of a high sensitivity Compton imager for planetary science applications

Gamma-ray spectroscopy has historically been used in planetary science to characterize the elemental composition of rocky bodies such as the Moon, Mars, and Mercury. Unlike X-ray, near infrared or similar spectrometers which can measure only the top hundreds of µm of the surface, gamma-ray spectroscopy reveals the bulk elemental composition at a depth of tens of cm. The past decade has seen significant progress in the development of handheld gamma-ray Compton imaging systems. Because these systems were designed to be light and compact for nuclear security applications, they are well suited for planetary science applications. The benefits of Compton imaging for improved spatial resolution and background rejection would make a Compton imaging system an ideal candidate for a next-generation gamma-ray planetary science instrument.  This project may involve either MCNP simulations or laboratory work, depending on the previous experience and skills of the student.

Walker, Andrew
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General Interests

Atmospheric drag, thermospheric modeling, drag coefficient, uncertainty quantification

Suggested Project Topics

Uncertainty quantification of atmospheric drag

Numerous satellites occupy orbits from ~300 km to ~1000 km commonly known as Low Earth Orbit. In this regime, atmospheric drag is the largest source of uncertainty in satellite trajectories. Maintaining space situational awareness for Low Earth Orbit satellites requires understanding the variability of atmospheric drag as a function of spatial, temporal, and solar fluctuations. Atmospheric drag is dependent on the atmospheric density, the spacecraft drag coefficient, the spacecraft area-to-mass ratio, and the spacecraft velocity relative to the atmosphere. Atmospheric density can undergo the largest fluctuations during geomagnetically active time periods but the statistical uncertainty in density, drag coefficient, area-to-mass ratio, and velocity in existing empirical and physics-based models is not well studied. This project would aim to explore both the variability of existing models and their relative errors when compared to the best estimates of atmospheric drag from the GRACE and CHAMP satellites. NRLMSISE-00, DTM, TIEGCM, and GITM will be used to compute the variability in density, drag coefficient, and velocity over several years of data as a function of spatial location, temporal variability, and solar conditions.

Winter, Lisa
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General Interests

Solar flares, Solar energetic particle events, Coronal mass ejections, space weather forecasting, machine learning

Suggested Project Topics

Onset of Major Solar Flares from EUV and X-rays

With the November 2016 GOES-R launch, operational NOAA satellites added to our powerful database of solar monitoring EUV emission tracking with the SUVI and EXIS instruments. To leverage these new datasets for solar flare forecasts, we propose a joint analysis of the GOES X-ray and SDO EUV (AIA and EVE) observations of active regions and flares. The goals of the analysis will be (1) differentiate between the active region X-ray and EUV emission site pre-flare for minor and major flares, (2) distinguish X-ray and EUV conditions indicative of all-clear periods, (3) develop a probabilistic model of flare class using the GOES X-ray data and SDO EUV observations that is tailored towards operational use with the GOES-R X-ray and EUV observations. ​The project will trace temporal differences in both coronal and chromospheric emission using high resolution SDO imaging data and develop empirical insight into signatures of the imminent arrival of a major flare or a weaker/all-clear solar environment.

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