Windy with solar outbursts

Physics of the Space Environment
November 5, 1999

Historically, the space environment has been a subject of interest only to the astronomy and space-science community. However, as society becomes increasingly dependent on networked information systems through satellites,changes to the space environment (so-called space weather) are having a wider impact on our activities. This text is just as likely to be read by a spacecraft engineer as a plasma physicist.

For those keen to appreciate the rich phenomena associated with the space environment, a common hurdle is the significant background knowledge required. Unusually, this text offers more than just a brief introduction to the fundamentals. Almost a third of the text is devoted to a crystal-clear presentation of basic concepts in electrodynamics, plasma phenomena and kinetic theory.

Before investigating space plasma phenomena, the physics and chemistry of the upper atmosphere are discussed. The text provides a lucid explanation of a range of phenomena such as atmospheric waves, chemical kinetics and the thermal structure of the upper atmosphere.

The erosion of spacecraft surfaces through interaction with atomic oxygen is now well understood, although still problematic.

The last of the three main sections of the text is appropriately titled "Sun-Earth connection". This is the tag given to one of the main Nasa space-science themes and captures the modern view of space plasmas.

Rather than investigating the physics of the sun and the Earth's magnetosphere in isolation, the strong interconnection between the two is now regarded as significant. It is in this Sun-Earth connection that the contemporary interest in space weather resides. The driver behind space weather is of course the sun, with the Earth's magnetosphere responding to changes induced in the solar wind. The background to the analysis of the solar wind is prefaced by a brief explanation as to why the outer solar atmosphere cannot be in hydrostatic equilibrium and reference to the pioneering work of Eugene Parker in this field. The structure of solar wind stream is then discussed and includes the relatively recent finding from the European Space Agency's Ulysses mission that the solar wind speed is a strong function of solar latitude. Coronal mass ejections, the primary source of catastrophic solar storms, are disarmingly referred to as "non-recurring disturbances in the solar wind".

This is an excellent text for those wishing to familiarise themselves with the physics of space- plasma phenomena and that of the upper atmosphere. The range of subject matter is such that it is likely to have wide appeal and the substantial introduction allows the reader to avoid referring to other texts to fill in knowledge gaps.

Colin R. McInnes is professor of space systems engineering, University of Glasgow.

Physics of the Space Environment

Author - Tamas I. Gombosi
ISBN - 0 521 59264 X
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 339

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