Planetary Sciences Editors' Vox

Even the Magnetosphere Has Problems

In a new conference and collection of papers, international space physicists narrow down the enigmas that puzzle magnetospheric science.


Planetary magnetospheres, the magnetic bubbles carved out of the solar system around each planet with a strong internal magnetic field source (specifically at Earth, Mercury, and the giant planets), are regions of both stability and variability. Electrically charged particles, collectively known as plasma, move through these regions, originating from the planet’s tenuous upper atmosphere, from a moon (especially in the case of Jupiter and Saturn), or from the solar wind, the supersonic and magnetized plasma streaming from the Sun throughout the solar system. These particles often become trapped along the magnetic field lines and can be accelerated up to relativistic speeds, posing a danger to satellites or astronauts. Sometimes the plasma flows down the field lines into the planet’s upper atmosphere, causing brilliant auroral displays. NASA has a number of spacecraft missions currently surveying the Earth’s magnetosphere, like the Magnetospheric MultiScale mission, the Van Allen Probes, and the THEMIS/ARTEMIS constellation. NASA even has a few satellites actively observing other planetary magnetospheres, like Cassini, which is reaching the end of its term orbiting Saturn, and Juno, which just arrived at Jupiter.

One of the biggest conferences of the year for magnetospheric physics is the Fall AGU Meeting. This is the place where many researchers in the field gather, along with thousands of others from across the scientific disciplines of the AGU umbrella. We also get together at smaller meetings, though, and these can be just as beneficial for career advancement as the big AGU conference. The smaller attendance and often more relaxed atmosphere can be marvelous for disseminating results, networking with others towards future collaborations, and discussing issues at length and in depth. In addition, journal special sections are a way to compel researchers to hone their investigations to publications. Whether you are presenting or writing, nothing is quite like a deadline to spur action. The one-two combo punch of a conference followed by a special section, therefore, really gets people motivated to about a topic has the potential to greatly advance the field.

How do you know when a meeting is going to be a bit different?  When the conference attendee memento is two bottles of beer. I had only experienced this once before, in Japan when we got a bottle of sake, but the “Unsolved Problems in Magnetospheric Physics” Workshop in September 2015 gave away alcohol to all of the participants.  Now, granted, this was a bit awkward, because many of the attendees flew in to the meeting site at Scarborough, in the northern reaches of England, which meant we either had to drink the gift or check a bag on the way home.

Yes, there was a science meeting in Scarborough, UK, home of that famous “fair” from the old English ballad and made famous by the Simon and Garfunkel song. I did not attend a fair while in town, but the city has a nice seaside walk and scenic castle ruins that were fun to explore.

A beautiful component of this meeting was that the organizers reserved an exceptionally large portion of the week to open discussion.  They intentionally limited the meeting to 55 participants so that everyone had an opportunity to speak and, after each talk, there was a 10-minute Q&A time. Amazingly, speakers were pretty good about reserving this time for discussion rather than claiming it for their presentation. Equally amazingly, the crowd stepped up to the challenge of filling this much open mic time with lively debate.

Not only did the organizers give out “magnetosbeer” as a memento but also every evening they opened the bar in the back of the meeting room. This was not a social hour but a serious conversation: each evening had a dedicated theme with moderators guiding a longer discussion on a selected topic. Reiner Friedel and I were the leaders for the first of these evening sessions, with our assigned question to the group being, “Is most magnetospheric physics already known?” I took it as my chance to quote Donald Rumsfeld at a science conference. It was a fantastic week of presentations, conversations, and quite a few heated discussions.

Credit: JoAnna Wendel/@JoAnnaScience, from a concept by Mike Liemohn
Credit: JoAnna Wendel/@JoAnnaScience, from a concept by Mike Liemohn

After our gathering in North Yorkshire, the meeting organizers became organizers for a special section in Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics. Again, however, this was no ordinary group of papers they were assembling, but rather a collection of Commentaries on the theme of the workshop: unsolved problems.  Commentaries have been around for quite a few years in other AGU journals, especially Space Weather and Water Resources Research, but it is a new paper type for Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics. Commentaries are meant to foster discussion on an intriguing or unsettled topic in the field, to put perspective on a particularly insightful new study, or to commemorate a historic event or important anniversary. Therefore, a special section on unsolved problems is the perfect avenue for this journal to launch its foray into this paper type.

Commentaries are also a place to discuss the current state of a scientific debate or controversy.  A recent Editors’ Vox by Geophysical Research Letters Editor Paul Williams poignantly illustrates why controversy is necessary and good for scientific advancement.  Commentaries can and should become a regular part of our publishing arsenal to allow advocates for a particular position on an unresolved issue to clearly, concisely, and publicly state their reasoning. Note that a Commentary is very different from a Comment, which is a rebuttal to a specific paper and is usually accompanied by a Reply from the authors of the original paper.  A Commentary does not take aim at a problem within a particular study but rather airs a viewpoint on a larger topic.  They are persuasive essays meant to spur the research community into action.

The papers are in and there are over a dozen Commentaries in the “Unsolved Problems in Magnetospheric Physics” special section. They span a wide range of geospace topics, including substorms, auroral precipitation, ionospheric outflow, radiation belts, and magnetic reconnection.  I encourage you to read through them and, hopefully, be inspired to tackle the unsolved problems brought forward in these papers.

—Mike Liemohn, Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics