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The University of Southampton

PHYS6004 Space Plasma Physics

Module Overview

The aim of this course is to explore the physical processes which occur in the space environment. Theories of solar wind propagation and its interaction with the earth are developed and compared with data from satellites and ground based observatories. The course will provide a brief revision of key elements of electromagnetic theory. Magnetohydrodynamics (MHD) will be developed and applied, with application of kinetic theory to areas where MHD breaks down. The reasons why space plasma physics is important for modern day life will be discussed. The magnetospheres of other planets will be compared to Earth’s.

Aims and Objectives

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • Theories of solar wind propagation and its interaction with the Earth
  • Magnetospheric dynamics including geomagnetic storms and substorms, and disturbances in the near-Earth space environment
  • Charged particle motion in magnetic fields, including the Earth's dipole field
  • The complementary nature of kinetic and fluid descriptions in the treatment of space plasmas
  • Earth’s space environment in relation to that of other planets
  • Have an introduction to current key research in space plasma physics
Learning Outcomes

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Calculate fundamental properties of a plasma given appropriate information
  • Apply basic electromagnetism to derive the kinetic theory of plasmas
  • Use kinetic theory to explain the motions of charged particles in the ionosphere and near-Earth space
  • Explain how particle collisions produce Hall and Pedersen currents in the ionosphere
  • Apply fluid theory to large scale plasmas
  • Explain the main consequences of magnetic reconnection for Earth's magnetosphere
  • Describe the phases and features of magnetic storms and substorms, and their causes
  • Interpret geomagnetic field measurements in terms of currents flowing in Earth's ionosphere and magnetosphere


- Overview: the solar atmosphere, solar wind and interactions with planetary bodies - The fluid theory of plasmas, frozen-in theorem (use example of Parker spiral of interplanetary magnetic field) - The shape of the Earth's magnetosphere: the balance of thermal, dynamic and magnetic pressures - Magnetic reconnection and how it dominates energy flow in the magnetosphere - Convection and substorm phenomena - Coronal mass ejections and geomagnetic storms - Ionosphere and plasmasphere - Aurora - Trapped particles, ring current and radiation belts - Effects of terrestrial disturbance: satellite health and safety, satellite orbit prediction, disruption to communication, navigation, radar systems and power distribution networks - Applications in fusion research and astrophysics

Learning and Teaching

Completion of assessment task7
Preparation for scheduled sessions18
Follow-up work18
Wider reading or practice61
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

W Baumjohann & R A Treumann. Basic Space Plasma Physics. 

J D Haigh, M Lockwood, and MS Giampaper. The Sun, Climate and Solar Analogues. 

M G Kivelson & C T Russell. An Introduction to Space Physics. 

Thomas E. Cravens. Physics of Solar Systems Plasmas. 


Assessment Strategy

Groupwork examples will be marked in the sessions. Each of the five will contribute 2% to the final mark.


MethodPercentage contribution
Continuous Assessment 10%
Final Assessment  90%


MethodPercentage contribution
Set Task 100%


MethodPercentage contribution
Set Task 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

Linked modules

Pre-requisites: PHYS1013 AND PHYS2001 AND PHYS2006

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