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For Everyone

MACH is devising a strategy to estimate how quickly different planets lose their atmosphere. There are many different kinds of planets, and many different kinds of stars. Topics which connect our everyday lives to MACH’s mission are discussed in many ways around the world. Below are some of our favorites.

Monarch Butterfly on grass.

Monarch Butterflies use Magnetic Fields to Navigate

Featured on the “Wonders of Life” BBC program with Brian Cox, this video takes the viewer three hours Northwest of Mexico City, where one of the few remaining wintering grounds for Monarch Butterflies is located. Brian Cox teaches us about the ways that these butterflies supplement their navigation by using measurements of the position of the sun taken each day with their eyes and magnetic sense.

A large Kauri tree in Waipoua Forest, Northland, New Zealand.

Trees Show When the Earth’s Magnetic Field Last Flipped Out

42,000 years ago, the North Pole “wandered around.” By looking at giant Kauri trees in New Zealand, a research team has found a way to study the historic movement of the pole.

Cooper and his team also found that the time of the wandering poles lines up with great changes to the climate, leading to the disappearance of neanderthals as well as many large mammals in Australia. It is even theorized that this influx of ionizing radiation and ultraviolet crashing into the Earth is what drove early humans into caves!

Active region on the sun with sunspots.

The Woman Who Mapped the Sun Over Time

Inside of the sun, trillions of hydrogen atoms fuse into helium atoms, a process called nuclear fission. This ongoing explosion maintains the sun’s internal temperature of roughly 15 million degrees Celsius, causing gas that is exposed to these temperatures to be turned into plasma. The charged particles that make up plasma then produce powerful magnetic fields. This solar plasma can produce temporary concentrations of magnetic activity.

These concentrations of magnetic activity will reduce heat in an area, producing less light and what looks like a dark spot on the surface of the sun. These dark spots are known as sun spots, and they are what Hisako Koyama tracked diligently over a period of many years.

Illustration of Earth with green lines representing Earth's magnetic field. Short, horizontal white lines show solar wind, with a vertical line to represent the magnetic field of the solar wind.

Earth’s Leaky Atmosphere

Dough Rowland, a NASA scientist, brought his research team to the island of Svalbard, where the small town nearest to the North Pole sits, in order to study one of the places where 100 tons of atmosphere escapes into space each day. The leak is a natural process, and part of the way a planet’s atmosphere changes over time. This understanding of atmospheric escape is a key factor in the search for other planets that could sustain life, and it has been on the mind of researchers for four decades. Part of what Rowland’s team in the North Pole seeks to better understand is the nature of change in Earth’s atmosphere over time. How would other planets, that may be similar to Earth, experience changes in their atmosphere?

Venus with lines representing the atmosphere in solar wind

Venus and its ‘Electric Wind’

While Venus may be the most like Earth in terms of size and gravity, its surface temperatures sit around 860 F. There is evidence, however, that Venus once had oceans in the distant past. If oceans boiled away as a result of temperature, though, Venus would have much more water in its atmosphere than it does. In this story, Bill Steigerwald explores the concept of an electric wind on Venus that is likely to be responsible for removing the steam from the atmosphere, and much more.

Illustartion of Mars

Mars and its Vanishing Atmosphere

On NPR’s program All Things Considered, Mars’ drastic change from a “reasonably pleasant place” to the dry and barren land that it is today is explored. Citing data from MAVEN, researchers have found that the atmosphere on Mars continues to deteriorate today, due to the solar wind coming from the sun.

Visualization of a planet's atmosphere being blown away near the sun.

Studying the Atmospheres of Planets Too Far Away to be Imaged

This exemplary video from NASA Goddard explores the ways in which astronomers today study exoplanets that are too far away to be directly imaged. By “splitting apart” the light of the star that these planets orbit, astronomers are able to study the atmosphere of exoplanets.

Mentoring Undergraduates

“I applied to MACH SUR because I’m interested in all areas of astronomy related to planets, but I wasn’t sure how interesting a project about the Earth would be. I was pleasantly surprised by how much there is to learn about our home planet, and by how fascinating the science and research behind it is!”  

—Aislyn Bell

The MACH center developed a Summer Undergraduate Research (SUR) program, leveraging the structure and offerings of LASP’s NSF-funded Boulder Solar Alliance Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. The 2021 SUR program was an 8-week program in which students virtually participated in weekly professional development activities, including IDL programming tutorials and presentation rehearsals. The program was evaluated via weekly student journal entries and monthly mentor check-ins. The SUR 2021 and 2022 Programs trained and mentored 5 students in research methodologies, ion escape affected by space weather, planetary magnetic fields and EUV stellar outputs. The students were selected from over 40 student applicants, as the top of their peers in a number of criteria, including the following:

  • Interest in space physics topics
  • Career interest in science, engineering, or computer science
  • Ability to work through challenges
  • Lack of opportunities related to their career goals
  • Upper level courses in science or coding to support research goals
  • Programming experience

For the 2022 program, the following eligibility criteria were instigated: students must be starting their junior or senior years in the following academic year, a U.S. Citizen, and from a MACH Center University partner. (Partnering Universities: University of Colorado, Boulder, working in partnership with University of California, Los Angeles, University of Kansas, University of New Hampshire, and Sonoma State University. )

2022 SUR Program Presentations

Geomagnetic Storms and Ion Outflow
Aislyn Bell, Undergraduate at University of Colorado, Boulder
Mentor: Dr. Lynn Kistler, University of New Hampshire

Aislyn Bell’s research sought to answer the question, “How does ionospheric outflow vary with substorm phase and method of identification?” Five lists of substorm onsets using both imaging and magnetometer methods of identification were gathered. Using TEAMS data from the FAST spacecraft, a superposed epoch analysis was performed on all of the lists from 1996/12/01-1997/02/28. This analysis was expanded through 1998/11/30 for three of the substorm onset lists, and the superposed epoch analysis was performed again. These results showed an increase in ion outflow at substorm onset, as was hypothesized.
Downloads: Presentation (.pptx) | Journal Entries (.pdf)

Mercury’s Calcium Exosphere
William Solorio, Undergraduate at University of Colorado, Boulder
Mentor: Dr. Aimee Merkel and David Brain, University of Colorado, Boulder

William Solorio’s research focused on Mercury’s calcium exosphere and the main atmospheric loss processes that fuel said exosphere. From MESSENGER UVVS data, there was an unexpected enhanced calcium emission about the dusk northern cusp region of the planet, and so William used an updated exosphere model to see what atmospheric loss processes could be responsible for that enhancement. William then compared the radiance/emission data of the calcium dawn source model to a solar wind sputtering model and the UVVS data to see which of the two could explain the enhancement. It turns out that with the current model, neither process seems to explain that observed enhancement.
Downloads: Presentation (.pptx) | Journal Entries (.pdf)

2021 SUR Program Presentations

Geomagnetic Storms and Ion Outflow
Genevieve Katherine Payne

Genevieve Katherine Payne asked the question, “How do different types of geomagnetic storms change the ion outflow from Earth?” To answer the question, first Genevieve gives a few brief descriptions of solar storms, coronal mass ejections, stream interaction regions, and geomagnetic storms. Genevieve and her team used data from the FAST satellite to observe a full solar cycle of 11 years. By using previously existing times and dates of recorded coronal mass ejections and comparing them to the data obtained from the satellite, Genevieve and her team were able to establish a clear correlation between the number of CME and SIR events and the sunspot activity during their years.
Downloads: Presentation (.pptx) | Journal Entries (.docx)

Evidence of Currents During Atmospheric Escape on Mars and Their Locations
Jade Fitzgerald

Jade Fitzgerald’s research focused primarily on Mars and the waning of its magnetic field over time. There are, however, various magnetic spots of crust, which can actually cause an occurrence of Aurora Borealis, similar to that seen on Earth. Jade then asks, “Are these events significant to habitability?” To answer this question, Jade used data from the Mars Global Surveyor, or MGS, from January 2001, November 2003, and April 2005. As expected, there are stronger regions of the crust that have concentrated magnetization.
Downloads: Presentation (.pptx)

Mars as an Exoplanet of an M Dwarf Star
Xinrun Du

Xinrun Du sought to answer the question, “How does the stellar wind of an M dwarf star affect the atmospheric escape of a Mars-like planet?” Beginning with a brief explanation of the M dwarf stars, which are the most abundant type of stars in our galaxy, Xinrun demonstrated why a planet orbiting an M dwarf star would be more exposed to the stellar wind. Mars was chosen as a comparison planet because of its complex magnetization, as well as the atmospheric loss over time which already has established data to study.
Downloads: Presentation (.pptx)

About MACH Mentoring

“The time I spent participating in the MACH REU was both a great learning experience and a productive way to advance my experience with astronomical research. Everyone on the team was very kind and always helpful, making the working environment feel welcoming and open.”  

—Genevieve Katherine Payne, 2021 Summer Research Experience (SUR) student


Do Habitable Worlds Require Magnetic Fields?

Prof. Dr. David Brain, Principal Investigator (PI) of the MACH Center, has presented to multiple audiences on the topic of whether habitable worlds require magnetic fields. He has thus far presented at the following events. If an event has a link, it is to the online recording of the talk.

Dome-to-Home Virtual Events

During COVID19 Restrictions in 2020 and 2021, MACH partnered with Fiske Planetarium and the Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado, Boulder, to share MACH science with the public in live events. These events were available for virtual attendance and can be viewed below.

The October 2020 Done-to-Home show delves into the history and fate of water on Mars. From ancient oceans to fossil deltas, Dr. Laura Peticolas and Dr. Robin Ramstad explore the ways in which water has played a role in shaping the Mars that we see today.

Featuring the special Guest and MACH PI Dr. David Brain, the April 2021 Dome-to-Home show, “Water in Our Solar System SPECIAL: Oceans, Air, and Magnets” explored how other rocky planets lost their water over time. Dr. David Brain leads a search through the solar system for liquid water, focusing primarily on the rocky planets Venus, Mars, and Earth.

Dave Brain is an assistant professor in the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics and the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado. As a planetary scientist, he studies the interaction of unmagnetized planets such as Mars and Venus with their space environment. This topic is exciting to him because charged particles and magnetic fields from the Sun are believed to have fundamentally altered these bodies over the past 4+ billion years. By studying processes that occur there today we hope to unravel how these and other planets evolved, and why their atmospheres are so different from our own. He is a Co-Investigator for the MAVEN mission currently orbiting Mars.

What makes Earth habitable? We know that the presence of liquid water is required, but are there other important characteristics of Earth that have made it noticeably more able to support life compared to its sibling planets Mars and Venus? One intriguing possibility is Earth’s magnetic field, which may have protected Earth’s atmosphere by preventing important species from escaping away to space. Neither Venus nor Mars possess global magnetic fields. Determining whether a magnetic field is necessary (or even helpful) for making a planet habitable is becoming increasingly important in an era where we have detected thousands of planets orbiting other stars, and want to know whether they are capable of supporting life.

If you liked those videos, please consider being a part of our research project! See more about it, here:

Additional Resources

Fiske Planetarium Dome to Home: A science education series that is free and open to all audiences, but specifically geared toward 4th – 8th grade students. Science on a Sphere (SoS) Network Members: View a list of over 150 institutions globally have SOS displays with the capabilities of interacting with MACH SOS datasets.