Montana State University

Research Projects

The MSU solar physics group is engaged in undergraduate and graduate education, public outreach, and solar research supported by NASA and NSF. Our research includes observation, data analysis, theory, and instrument development. In both research and graduate education, we collaborate closely with the solar group at the Lockheed-Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory, and the Solar & Stellar X-ray Group at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. We are actively involved in:


Group photo with the rocket.

MOSES, Multi-Order Solar Extreme Ultraviolet Spectrograph, is a solar mission that launched on a NASA rocket in 2006 to gather high-resolution images of a broad section of the sun. The optical instrumentation carried by the rocket was conceived, designed, and built at MSU by a number of students and faculty. Analysis of the data is ongoing and scientists hope MOSES will help reveal what's behind the sun's magnetic energy and solar flares that greatly affect satellites, cell phones, power grids and related technologies. The MOSES team is working towards a second launch of the telescope in 2012.

MSU personnel involved:
Charles Kankelborg, Larry Springer, Lewis Fox (grad student), Thomas Rust (grad student), Hans Courrier (grad student), Jacob Plovanic (grad student), Shane Atwood (grad student), Patrick Lokken (grad student, EE), Cameron Chen, Jaron Hartman (undergrad), Pat O'Hara (undergrad)

MOSES Launch:
MSU News Service - MSU rocket roars into space above New Mexico desert

Photo Resources:
Best Photos, Launch Photos


The primary goal of the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) explorer is to understand how the solar atmosphere is energized. The IRIS investigation combines advanced numerical modeling with a high resolution UV imaging spectrograph, focused on the thin transition region at the base of the corona. In this region, the temperature of the sun's plasma jumps from several thousands of degrees to over a million degrees, in the space of just a few hundred kilometers. IRIS is a collaboration with leading academic and industry entities around the world.

MSU personnel involved:
Charles Kankelborg, Larry Springer, Christina Dunn, Janet Glenn, Stefan Eccles (undergrad), Joseph Shaw (EE), Nathan Pust (EE), Angela DesJardins (MSGC), Randy Larimer (MSGC)

IRIS Mission website:

MSGC national student spectrograph competition:

VIDEOS: CCK presentation to SMAS (January 2011):

IRIS Presentation by Dr. Charles Kankelborg, January 28, 2011

Solar Satellite Operations

The Hinode (Solar-B) satellite. Image Source

MSU plays a key role in the day-to-day operations of several Sun-observing satellites such as the X-Ray Telescope on the Japan/US/UK Hinode mission. MSU researchers take part in developing and executing observing plans, coordinating with observers on other orbiting instruments and at ground-based observatories around the world.

MSU personnel involved:
David McKenzie, Keiji Yosimura, Aki Takeda, and Adam Kobelski (grad student). Formerly involved: Sabrina Savage (recently graduated with PhD), and Junho Shin.

Hinode website:

XRT website:

Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) of NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory

SDO is NASA's flagship for the Living With a Star program.  With eight channels operating over a range of wavelengths, AIA is the most complex ultraviolet telescope ever built.  MSU faculty and students participate in the analysis of the scientific data from SDO/AIA.

MSU personnel involved:
David McKenzie, Piet Martens, Bob Leamon, Larry Springer, Jason Scott, Chris Lowder

Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO):

SDO's Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA):

Automated Feature Detection and Analysis for SDO and Other Solar Observatories

A solar eruptive prominence as seen in extreme UV light on March 30, 2010 with Earth superimposed for a sense of scale. Photo credit: NASA/SDO

This international consortium of scientists is working to produce a comprehensive system for automated feature recognition for the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). The volume of data being collected requires the creation of efficient software modules that can keep up with the SDO data stream to detect, trace, and analyze a large number of phenomena, including flares, sigmoids, filaments, and coronal dimmings.

MSU personnel involved:
Piet Martens, Rafal Angryk (Computer Science), and physics and computer science students

Main Publication:

"Computer Vision for the Solar Dynamics Observatory" (Invited Paper), P.C.H. Martens, G.D.R. Attrill, A.R. Davey, A. Engell, S. Farid, P.C. Grigis, J. Kasper, K. Korreck, S.H. Saar, A. Savcheva, Y. Su, P. Testa, M. Wills-Davey, P.N. Bernasconi, N.-E. Raouafi, V.A. Delouille, J.F. Hochedez, J.W. Cirtain, C.E. DeForest, R.A. Angryk, I. De Moortel, T. Wiegelmann, M.K. Georgoulis, R.T.J. McAteer, R.P. Timmons 2011, Solar Phys.

Dynamo Modeling for the Sun and Solar-type Stars

New and innovative stellar dynamo simulation code, developed by former MSU graduate student Andres Munoz, enables solar physicists to explore the origins and decipher the evolution of solar magnetic activity over multiple time scales ranging from centuries to stellar and planetary evolutionary time scales. The results from that dynamo code are input for a surface magnetic flux transport code developed by collaborators at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland to produce accurate predictions for the Sun's surface magnetic fields and open magnetic flux. The former regulates the variations in the total solar irradiance and the latter the amount of Cosmic Rays that penetrate the atmosphere of the Earth, both of which are key physical agents of the solar influence on the Earth's climate.

MSU personnel involved:
Piet Martens, Dibyendu Nandi (IISER Kolkata, India), Anthony Yeates (Univ. of Dundee), Duncan Mackay (St. Andrews) Students: Andres Munoz (now postdoc at Harvard), Ernest Amouzou (Physics)

NASA has produced a movie made from MSU simulations:


"The unusual minimum of sunspot cycle 23 a consequence of meridional plasma flow variations", Dibyendu Nandy, Andres Munoz-Jaramillo, and Petrus C. H. Martens, Nature, March 2011, in press.

The Virtual Solar Observatory (VSO)

The Virtual Solar Observatory (VSO) provides researchers, educators, and the public access to data and images from approximately 60 major space- and ground-based sources of online solar data. Physical variables include: magnetic field, intensity, Doppler velocity, and all wavelengths from X-ray to radio; and all layers of the Sun, from the interior to the corona.

MSU personnel involved:
Piet Martens and Keiji Yosimura, and physics and computer science students

Virtual Solar Observatory (VSO) website:

Main Publication:

"The Virtual Solar Observatory -- A Resource for International Heliophysics Research" (Invited Contribution), Frank Hill, Piet Martens, Keiji Yosimura, Joseph Gurman, Joseph Hourcle, George Dimitoglou, Igor Suarez-Sola, Steve Wampler, Kevin Reardon, Alisdair Davey, Richard S. Bogart, and Karin Q. Tian, in: "Proceedings of the UN/ESA/NASA/Japan Workshop", 2009, eds. Guenter Eichhorn and Hans Haubold, Earth, Moon, and Planets 104(10), 315-330.

Yohkoh Legacy Archive

Extended X-ray corona on 8-May-1992. More description.

The Yohkoh Legacy data archive is a project initiated and maintained by members of MSU's solar group, and is currently the only source of the best-corrected data set from Yohkoh's 10-year mission, which spans a full solar activity cycle. It also contains a rich amount of technical/scientific information with a user-friendly interface.

MSU personnel involved:
Aki Takeda, Loren Acton, Keiji Yosimura, David McKenzie

Yohkoh Legacy Archive:

Observational Analyses of Magnetic Reconnection

Solar physicists are convinced that magnetic fields are rearranged, and energy is released, via a set of processes referred to as magnetic reconnection. To better understand this occurrence, observational measurements, analytical derivations and computer modeling are used to understand and explain how reconnection in solar flares occurs in just minutes, and lasts only a few hours even though the electrical conductivity of the million-degree coronal plasma indicates that reconnection should occur only on time scales of many years.

MSU personnel involved:
Dana Longcope, Jiong Qiu, David McKenzie, Angela Des Jardins, Sabrina Savage (former grad student), WenJuan Liu (graduate student), Nicholas Hill (REU summer intern), Maria Kazachenko (former grad student), Theresa Carranza-Fulmer (REU summer intern), Anna Malanushenko (former grad student).

Recent Publications:

"Quantitative Examination of a Large Sample of Supra-arcade Downflows in Eruptive Solar Flares", by Savage and McKenzie, 2011, ApJ, (accepted for publication).

"Reconnection and Energetics in Two-ribbon Flares: A Revisit of the Bastille-day Flare", by Qiu, Liu, Hill, and Kazachenko, ApJ, 725, 319.

"A Quantitative Model of Energy Release and Heating by Time-dependent, Localized Reconnection in a Flare with Thermal Loop-top X-ray Source", by Longcope, Des Jardins, Carranza-Fulmer, and Qiu, 2010, Solar Physics, 267, 107.

"Reconnection Outflows and Current Sheet Observed with Hinode/XRT in the 2008 April 9 'Cartwheel CME' Flare", by Savage, McKenzie, Reeves, Forbes, and Longcope, 2010, ApJ, 722, 329.

"Sunspot Rotation, Flare Energetics, and Flux Rope Helicity: The Halloween Flare on 2003 October 28", by Kazachenko, Canfield, Longcope, and Qiu, 2010, ApJ, 722, 1539.

"Reconstructing the Local Twist of Coronal Magnetic Fields and the Three-Dimensional Shape of the Field Lines from Corona Loops in EUV and X-Ray Images", by Malanushenko, Longcope, and McKenzie, 2009, ApJ, 707, 1044.

The Faint Young Sun Paradox

The geological and biological record support that the Earth's biosphere was considerably warmer than it is now during the origin of life on Earth and for several billions of years thereafter. Yet, stellar evolution calculations support the Sun reaching the Zero Age Mean Sequence at about 75% of its present luminosity, and linearly increasing in time up to its current level. Climate models predict a "Snowball Earth" for such a low solar constant. That is the paradox: solving this puzzle is our objective.

MSU personnel involved:
Piet Martens, Dibyendu Nandi, Andres Munoz. Collaborators: Jim Kasting (Penn State), Richard Linzen (MIT), Ed Guinan (Villanova), Steve Saar (CfA), and John Priscu (MSU)

Link to presentation from Space Climate Symposium:


"The Faint Young Sun Paradox: A Solar Origin?" (Invited Paper), Petrus C Martens, Dibyendu Nandy, Andres Munoz, Space Climate Symposium 4, Goa, India, 2011. To be published in the Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics.

Diagnostics and Modeling of Steady and Flaring Solar Coronal Loops

The building blocks of X-ray and EUV emission in the solar corona are so-called coronal loops. These loops, it is believed, follow the magnetic field lines and they are brighter than the surrounding corona because coronal heating -- the conversion of free magnetic to thermal energy -- is concentrated inside them. Solar coronal loops are now being observed with unprecedented spatial, spectral and temporal resolution by the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) instrument on the Solar Dynamics Observatory. MSU scholars have developed analytical models for quasi-static solar coronal loops, a sophisticated numerical code for simulating the thermal structure and dynamics of steady and flaring loops, and sophisticated techniques for analyzing the observations of such loops. Diagnosis and modeling of loops is an ongoing effort involving several students.

MSU personnel involved:
Piet Martens, Trae Winter (former graduate student), Graduate student: Jason Scott

Recent Publications:

"Simulating the Effects of Initial Pitch-angle Distribution on Solar Flares", Henry D. Winter, Petrus Martens, Katherine K. Reeves 2011, Astrophys. J., submitted.

"Scaling Laws and Temperature Profiles for Solar and Stellar Coronal Loops with Non-uniform Heating", P.C.H. Martens 2010, Astrophys. J., 714,1290-1304.

"Analysis of Two Coronal Loops with Combined TRACE and SoHO/CDS Data", J. Scott, P.C.H. Martens, and J.W. Cirtain 2008, Solar Phys. 252(2), 293-304.

Max Millennium

As a component of NASA's  Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (RHESSI) mission, MSU scientists operate the Max Millennium Program for several functions that are key to the successful acquisition of observationally complete datasets and the full scientific exploitation of those observations.

They include the following:

  1. Plans for joint observing between RHESSI and other space and ground-based instruments.
  2. Identification of daily observing targets by a cadre of experienced solar observers (MMmotd)
  3. Descriptions of RHESSI data analysis projects
  4. Notification of RHESSI software and hardware updates
  5. The Solar Physics E-Print Archive. The over 2000 e-prints in this archive are cited about twice as often as average.
  6. Three self-subscribed e-mail distribution lists for those who want to receive messages relevant to these functions:
    • Max Millennium News, Science Nuggets from various missions, general announcements (Mmscience list, ~375 subscribers),
    • Daily solar activity observing targets (Mmmotd list, ~285 subscribers),
    • RHESSI software updates (RHESSI_Data Analysis list, ~210 subscribers)

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