Section 2.7: Space Physics and Space Weather


The near-Earth space environment is hazardous and poses a significant risk for satellites and humans in space. Currently, there are hundreds of operational commercial satellites with a revenue stream of tens of billions of dollars per year. There are also a number of other satellites that assist in navigation, weather prediction, and telecommunication. Frequent satellite failures caused by space weather have fueled a surge in interest with specification and prediction of space weather during the last decade.

Our section is working on understanding of the dynamical evolution of the hazardous space radiation environment and developing the tools for specification and prediction of the adverse effects of space environment using models and data assimilation. We study fundamental processes in the near-Earth environment and focus on understanding fundamental processes responsible for the evolution of space radiation. Our research will help safely design and operate satellites and maintain ground networks. In our research we try to bridge our theoretical studies with high performance computing to develop tools that can be used by engineers.

Below you can find more details on the main areas of research in our section:

Latest News

April, 18 2023 - A more precise model of the Earth's ionosphere

The ionosphere – the region of geospace spanning from 60 to 1000 kilometres above the Earth – impairs the propagation of radio signals from global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) with its electrically charged particles. This is a problem for the ever higher precision required by these systems – both in research and for applications such as autonomous driving or precise orbit determination of satellites. Models of the ionosphere and its uneven, dynamic charge distribution can help correct the signals for ionospheric delays, which are one of the main error sources in GNSS applications. Researchers led by Artem Smirnov and Yuri Shprits of the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences have presented a new model of the ionosphere in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, developed on the basis of neural networks and satellite measurement data from 19 years. In particular, it can reconstruct the topside ionosphere, the upper, electron-rich part of the ionosphere much more precisely than before. It is thus also an important basis for progress in ionospheric research, with applications in studies on the propagation of electromagnetic waves or for the analysis of certain space weather events, for example.

EGU OSPP Awards 2022 to five GFZ researchers

December, 05 2022 -Angelica Castillo, Melanie Lorenz, Jannes Münchmeyer, Michaël Pons & Tobias Schnepper were awarded the EGU's Outstanding Student and Doctoral Presentation Prize (OSPP) 2022. This means that 5 out of 66 of these prizes went to GFZ researchers this year.

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How do electrons close to Earth reach almost the speed of light?

February, 01 2021 - New study found that electrons can reach ultra-relativistic energies for very special conditions in the magnetosphere when space is devoid of plasma.

Congratulations to Irina Zhelavskaya for successfully defending her doctoral dissertation

October, 22 2020

Irina Zhelavskaya successfully defended her doctoral dissertation entitled "Modeling of the plasmasphere dynamics", with highest distinction (summa cum laude). Congratulations, Irina!

Congratulations to Nikita Aseev for successfully defending his doctoral dissertation

September, 23 2020

Nikita Aseev successfully defended his doctoral dissertation entitled "Modeling and understanding dynamics of charged particles in the Earth's inner magnetosphere". Congratulations, Nikita!

PAGER combines models from the Solar surface to the Earth’s inner magnetosphere

February, 11 2020

GFZ leads Horizon 2020 project on space weather predictions

Stakeholders – such as satellite operators and manufacturers - require space weather predictions to have long lead times and confidence levels and that they should be tailored to particular engineering systems. These requirements will be addressed in the new PAGER project, led by the GFZ section ‘Magnetospheric Physics’ and funded under the EU Horizon 2020 program. In this project, the consortium consisting of five partners from Europe and the US will receive a total of 2.4 million Euros, out of which 1.1 million Euros will be provided to GFZ. The kick-off meeting took place in Potsdam at the end of January.

PAGER stands for ‘Prediction of Adverse effects of Geomagnetic Storms and Energetic Radiation’. To utilize available measurements and to address the space weather needs, the researchers will combine state-of-the-art models covering all the way from the Solar surface to the Earth’s inner magnetosphere. They will also run ensembles of physics-based and machine-learning models to make predictions of the space weather conditions one to two days in advance. This innovative approach will allow the researchers to not only make predictions, but also to provide the relevant confidence levels. On top of that, predictive models will be blended with data by means of data assimilation.

The team includes the leading academic experts in space weather, while the advisory board consists of the heads of the space weather prediction centers of ESA, NASA and NOAA. (ph)

Further information:

EU-Fact-Sheet zu PAGER

Researchers from the Northwest University and the South African Space Agency visit GFZ

In the framwork of the project on "Joint South Africa-Germany Space Weather Studies During Solar Cycle 25 and Beyond", funded by the Alexander von Humboldt foundation, three researchers (Prof. Du Toit Strauss, Dr. Stefan Lotz and Mr. Jabus van den Berg) from the Northwest University and the South African Space Agency visited GFZ and researchers from Sections 2.3 and 2.8. The purpose of the visit was to initiate the group-linkage cooperation, explore topics for collaboration and prepare the deployment of a mini Neutron Monitor on the South African Research Vessel SA Agulhas II, to explore the Cosmic Ray flux variation in the South Atlantic and polar regions. We are looking forward to the coming years of productive collaboration between South Africa and Germany in geomagnetic and space research.

A new way to create Saturn's radiation belts

November 29, 2018

Around Saturn, and other planets including the Earth, energetic charged particles are trapped in magnetic fields generated by the planets. Here the particles arrange in doughnut-shaped zones, known as radiation belts, such as the Van Allen belts around the Earth where electrons travel close to the speed of light.

Irina Zhelavskaya Awarded 2018 Outstanding Student Poster and PICO (OSPP) Awards

April 2018

Systematic analysis of machine learning techniques for Kp prediction in the framework of the H2020 project ‘SWAMI’ (Zhelavskaya, I.; Shprits, Y.; Vasile, R.; Stolle, C.; Matzka, J.)

Click here to download the poster/PICO file.

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Million fold increase in the power of waves near Jupiter's moon Ganymede

August 07, 2018

Listening to electro-magnetic waves around the Earth, converted to sound, is almost like listening to singing and chirping birds at dawn with a crackling camp fire nearby. This is why such waves are called chorus waves. They cause polar lights but also high-energy 'killer' electrons that can damage spacecraft. In a recent study to be published in Nature Communications, the authors describe extraordinary chorus waves around other planets in our solar system.

How do electrons vanish from the Van-Allen-Belts?

December 21, 2017

Super fast electrons are pushed into the atmosphere whereas less fast electrons stay – Findings are important for satellite safety and exoplanet studies.

Satellites at risk: Space weather models need better validation

December 28, 2016

Accuracy of space weather prediction depends strongly on the quality of the models. A team led by the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences demonstrates how errors in the algorithms can lead to wrong predictions. The authors present a new algorithm for modelling of the electron flux in the geosynchronous orbit which is important for telecommunication and navigation satellites.

Yuri Shprits follows call to the University of Potsdam

November 8,  2016

Yuri Shprits, Head of the research group Magnetospheric Physics at the GFZ section Earth’s Magnetic Field, was appointed Professor at the Institute of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Potsdam, on 24 October. Shprits was successfully...


Wave-induced loss of ultra-relativistic electrons in the Van Allen radiation belts

1. Oktober 2016

A geomagnetic storm on January 17, 2013, provided unique observations that finally resolved a long-standing scientific problem.

A perfect sun-storm

September 28, 2016

A geomagnetic storm on January 17, 2013, provided unique observations that finally resolved a long-standing scientific problem. For decades, scientists had asked how particles hitting the Earth's magnetosphere were lost. A likely mechanism involved certain electromagnetic waves scattering particles into the Earth's atmosphere. More recently, another mechanism was proposed that caused particles to be lost in interplanetary space. Yuri Shprits from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences and the University of Potsdam, together with colleagues from several institutions, recently found that both mechanisms play a role affecting particles at different speeds. “This study resolves some fundamental scientific questions about our space environment and may also help understand fundamental processes that occur elsewhere in space, on the Sun, in outer planets, distant galaxies, and exoplanets,” says Yuri Shprits. He adds: “This study will also help us predict and now-cast the space environment and protect valuable satellites in space.” The study appeared in Nature Communications on Wednesday, September 28.

Nachfolgend finden Sie weitere Details zu den Hauptforschungsgebieten unserer Abteilung:

Radiation Belt Modelling

Earth’s radiation belts consist of highly energetic protons and electrons trapped by Earth’s magnetic field in the region of 1.2~8 Re (Earth radii) away from Earth’s center, which can be hazardous for satellite equipment. Our group uses modelling approaches to better understand the dynamic evolution of the outer radiation belts. Specifically, we have developed physics-based 3D and 4D Versatile Electron Radiation Belt (VERB) codes to help us understand important mechanisms controlling the dynamic evolution of radiation belts, such as radial diffusion, local acceleration, local loss, magnetopause shadowing and electric convection.

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Data Assimilation

Analysis of radiation belt observations present a major challenge, as satellite observations are often incomplete, inaccurate and have only limited spatial coverage. Nevertheless, through data assimilation observations can be blended with information from physics-based models, in order to fill gaps and lead to a better understanding of the underlying dynamical processes. We have developed a scheme that enables efficient data assimilation from multiple satellite missions into the state-of-the-art partial differential equation-based model of the inner magnetosphere Versatile Electron Radiation Belt (VERB-3D).

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Machine Learning

Machine learning (ML) methods and algorithms can be applied to space weather related problems in order to develop new data-driven models of different physical phenomena in space and to enhance existing physics-based models. In our group, we use ML algorithms to develop predictive models of electron density in the plasmasphere and Kp index, and use these models to enhance our radiation belt forecasts.

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Ring Current Modelling

The ring current is an electric current encircling the Earth at the distances between ~3 and ~5 Earth’s radii from the center of the Earth in the equatorial plane. It is a crucial component in our understanding of the magnetosphere dynamics and geomagnetic storms, and it can also affect human infrastructures such as high-latitude power grids or currently operating communication or navigation satellites. In our group, we use the four-dimensional Versatile Electron Radiation Belt (VERB-4D) code to model the dynamics of the ring current.

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