Developed science instruments currently operating on 13 spacecraft


Developed instrumentation on over 70 spacecraft

Space physics is the study of everything above the Earth’s atmosphere, where the ionosphere and magnetosphere reside, and from the sun, to the solar system and beyond. Plasmas, gases of charged particles, make up over 99% of the solar system such as in the sun’s core and corona, the solar wind, interplanetary space, and the planetary magnetospheres, and so are a natural focus of the discipline. The ionosphere is a gas of charged particles created by the ionization of particles in the atmosphere from UV radiation from the sun. The magnetosphere is a region of space around the Earth containing the Earth’s magnetic field, which is created by currents flowing in the Earth’s outer liquid core, and extends to where it meets the interplanetary magnetic field created by the solar wind (the magnetopause). The solar wind is a flux of charged particles ejected from the solar corona. The magnetosphere contains the Van Allen radiation belts, typically two belts containing high-energy charged particles trapped from the solar wind and the ionosphere. The discovery of these radiation belts in the 1950’s by James Van Allen, a professor who spent his career at the University of Iowa, through Explorer I launched space physics as a discipline. The solar wind interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field, and disturbances can lead to geomagnetic storms that can affect communication and GPS satellites, spacecraft, the power grid, and other technology.

Four advanced courses in the fundamentals of plasma physics and its application in space and astrophysical environments are offered regularly, as well as specialty courses offered periodically on numerical simulations of plasmas, spacecraft instrumentation for plasma measurements, and data analysis methods in plasma physics and space physics. A plasma physics seminar and a space physics and astrophysics seminar are each held weekly during the academic year.

Space physics research at the University of Iowa is world-renowned, and alumni of the program include scientists such as Donald Gurnett (who also spent his career as a professor at UI), whose discoveries include solving how auroras are created and detecting the heliopause (the boundary between our solar system and outer space) with Voyager 1, and James Hansen, a pioneering climatologist and former director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. In all, researchers at UI have contributed to instrumentation on over one hundred rocket and spacecraft missions.

UI instruments in space April 2023

Current researchers study such topics as the origin of Jupiter's magnetosphere and magnetic field, the solar wind interacting with Mars and moons, near-sun electron properties, charged particle dynamics in the Earth’s magnetosphere, physics of the auroras, physics of magnetic reconnection at the magnetopause, magnetosphere-ionosphere coupling, Alfven waves, and exploring interstellar space. UI researchers continue to build instrumentation that contributes to spacecraft missions, including current and recent missions such as TRACERS, Van Allen Probes, Juno, MMS, SWARM/CASSIOPE, THEMIS-ARTEMIS, Mars Express, Cluster II and TRICE-2.


For more information and resources related to Space Physics research and projects conducted at the University of Iowa, see https://space.physics.uiowa.edu/
TRACERS project image of satellite in space collecting data.


The NASA-funded Tandem Reconnection and Cusp Electrodynamics Reconnaissance Satellites (TRACERS) will study the mysterious, powerful interactions between the magnetic fields of the sun and Earth. TRACERS, consisting of two identical satellites that will orbit Earth in tandem (one following the other), will help answer long-standing questions key to understanding space weather, particularly how the Sun transfers energy, mass, and momentum to near-Earth space. The mission, led by UI Associate Professor David Miles, received $115 million, making it the single largest externally funded research project in institutional history.

Voyager spacecraft


Exploring interstellar space

The Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft are exploring where nothing from Earth has flown before – interstellar space.  The two spacecraft, launched in 1977 each carrying a University of Iowa designed and built Plasma Wave Instrument, began their journeys by exploring the outer planets of our solar system before entering interstellar space.  Data from the Iowa instruments have enabled researchers to make discoveries, including the first observations of plasma waves and low-frequency radio emissions in the magnetospheres of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune; confirming the presence of lightning in the atmospheres of Jupiter and Neptune; the first measurements of the electron density in the interstellar medium, and the first detection in interstellar space of shocks related to solar activity. Dr. Bill Kurth and Prof. Allison Jaynes are both co-Investigators on the mission. Both spacecraft continue to send scientific information about their surroundings through the Deep Space Network. 


MAVEN graphic


The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission, which launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on November 18, 2013, is the first mission devoted to understanding the Martian upper atmosphere. The goal of MAVEN is to determine the role that loss of atmospheric gas to space played in changing the Martian climate through time. Where did the atmosphere—and the water—go? MAVEN will determine how much of the Martian atmosphere has been lost over time by measuring the current rate of escape to space and gathering enough information about the relevant processes to allow extrapolation backward in time. Prof. Jasper Halekas is the instrument lead for the Solar Wind Ion Analyzer (SWIA) on MAVEN, which measures the solar wind and magnetosheath ion density and velocity.

Van Allen Probes image

Van Allen Probes

The Van Allen Probes (2012-2019), the second mission of NASA's Living With a Star program, explored fundamental processes that operate throughout the solar system, in particular those that generate hazardous space weather effects near the Earth and phenomena that could affect solar system exploration. A University of Iowa team led by the late Prof. Craig Kletzing developed the EMFISIS instrument suite and Waves instrument suites Van Allen Probes mission.  Prof. Allison Jaynes was a Co-Investigator on the Relativistic Electron Proton Telescope (REPT) instrument, part of the Energetic Particle, Composition, and Thermal Plasma (ECT) Suite.

The Juno probe orbiting the planet Jupiter.


Exploring Jupiter

The Juno mission is conducting an in-depth study of the giant planet Jupiter. Juno is the first mission to use a polar orbit to study Jupiter, allowing it to carry out the first exploration of the polar magnetosphere which hosts the solar system's brightest auroras. The solar-powered spacecraft launched on August 5, 2011, and entered into Jupiter orbit on July 4, 2016, where it is investigating the existence of an ice-rock core, determining the amount of global water and ammonia present in the atmosphere, studying convection and deep wind profiles in the atmosphere, investigating the origin of the Jovian magnetic field, and exploring the polar magnetosphere. 

Juno's mission at Jupiter was recently extended, beginning in August 2021. The mission extension provides for Juno to continue orbiting Jupiter until late 2025.

MMS poster

Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission

MMS investigates how the Sun’s and Earth’s magnetic fields connect and disconnect, explosively transferring energy from one to the other in a process that is important at the Sun, other planets, and everywhere in the universe, known as magnetic reconnection. Reconnection limits the performance of fusion reactors and is the final governor of geospace weather that affects modern technological systems such as telecommunications networks, GPS navigation, and electrical power grids. Four identically instrumented spacecraft measure plasmas, fields, and particles in a near-equatorial orbit that will frequently encounter reconnection in action.  Assistant Research Scientist Scott Bounds was on the Electron Drift Instrument (EDI) team for the mission. Prof. Allison Jaynes is an instrument team member for the Energetic Particle Detector suite.

Parker Solar Probe front of the sun

Parker Solar Probe

Parker Solar Probe will swoop to within 4 million miles of the Sun's surface, facing heat and radiation like no spacecraft before it. Launched on Aug. 12, 2018, Parker Solar Probe will provide new data on solar activity and make critical contributions to our ability to forecast major space-weather events that impact life on Earth. Prof. Jasper Halekas is the instrument scientist for the Solar Probe Analyzer (SPAN) electron sensors for the SWEAP suite on the probe.

Faculty Specializing in this Area

Casey DeRoo

Casey DeRoo, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor
Kenneth Gayley

Kenneth G. Gayley, Ph.D.

Associate Professor
Astronomy Graduate Advisor

Keri Hoadley, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor
Daniel McGinnis

Daniel McGinnis, Ph.D.

Visiting Assistant Professor
David Miles

David M. Miles, Ph.D.

Associate Professor

Research Staff in this Area

Scott Bounds

Scott Bounds, Ph.D.

Associate Research Scientist/Engineer
George Hospodarsky

George Hospodarsky, Ph.D.

Research Scientist/Engineer
Bill Kurth

William Kurth, Ph.D.

Research Scientist/Engineer
D. John Menietti

J. Douglas Menietti, Ph.D.

Research Scientist/Engineer
Jolene Pickett

Jolene Pickett