T minus 10 seconds and counting

“10 – 9 – 8 – …”. From the loudspeaker system at Cape Canaveral, Florida, USA, the legendary countdown has started. It is 4:30 pm local time on Monday April 2, 2018, and one of the SpaceX rockets by Elon Musk, Falcon 9, is ready to launch. Onboard it will carry research equipment to be installed on the International Space Station (ISS), including the instrument package ASIM (Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor). From its new home 400 km above the ground, ASIM will observere terrestrial gamma-ray flashes (TGFs) as well as transient luminous events known as e.g. Sprites, Halos, Blue starters, Blue Jets, Gigantic Jets, Elves, etc.. These are newly discovered phenomena that we have just been aware of for a few decades, and that we still know very little about. Most of the X-ray and gammadetector on ASIM to measure TGFs have been developed by the Birkeland Centre for Space Science (BCSS) at the University of Bergen (UiB). So BCSS-leader Nikolai Østgaard is probably both excited and slightly nervous, as he is following the events in Florida on-site this historic day, after working on the ASIM-project for 14 years. Also present at Cape Canaveral are the two BCSS-engineers Kjetil Ullaland and Georgi Genov, BCSS media contact Kavita Østgaard, Gunnar Mæhlum from IDEAS, Marianne Vinje Tantillo from the Norwegian Space Agency, UiB-rector Dag Rune Olsen and Communication Advicer at UiB, Olaf Gundersen. They are all watching – trembled with excitement – as huge amounts of gas flows out from Falcon 9 (see image below), while the countdown is approaching 0.

It is not only in Florida that people are watching in awe. At the BCSS headquarters in Bergen, almost 30 BCSS-staff and students have gathered to watch the events via the NASA live-stream. Together with journalists from Bergens Tidende, BA, TV2 and the UiB paper På Høyden, everyone is waiting for the clock to be 22:30 and finally time for launch. Due to the time zone difference between Florida and Bergen, it has become dark here at home in Bergen when the drama from Cape Canaveral is about to unfold.

One of the guys that was waiting nervously this unforgettable Monday night was myself. I still recall to this very day the excitement that filled the atmosphere in the room as we were waiting for ASIM to be put into space.

Since 2013, when the Birkeland Centre for Space Science was established, I have had the privilege of being part of this great Centre, working in the Education and Public Outreach group in a 20 % position (my main job is to be a teacher at Nordahl Grieg High School). Even though my connection to the Centre means I am biased, I am nevertheless so impressed of the many exciting results that BCSS researchers have produced. In particular during the last 2-3 years. In this blog post, I want to share some of the exciting research results that have been accomplished in recent years, which underlines the blog title: “Space Research in Bergen – a true fairly tale”.

Before we return to that memorable Monday on April 2, 2018, I will take you back about two decades, to put my own connection to the Birkeland Centre into perspective. The year is 1998, and I am about to start on a master thesis study in space research at the University of Bergen. Soon I get to know many of the great guys that make up the Birkeland Centre today: Nikolai Østgaard and Stein Haaland were PhD students, Kjellmar Oksavik was a fellow master student, while Johan Stadsnes, Finn Søraas, Kjetil Ullaland and Kjartan Olafsson were researchers. A few years later, when I started on my PhD studies, a new master student named Hilde Nesse Tyssøy joined the Space Physics Group. It is indeed great to reflect upon how much all these great people have accomplished during the last 20 years.

Also, personally, I am in particular forever grateful to Nikolai and Kjellmar, as they always provided help whenever needed during my time both as a master student and later as a Phd student.

To quote the preface section from my thesis that was finished in 2005: “I am also thankful to Nikolai Østgaard for all his great help during this study. Nikolai Østgaard has been a true source of motivation and good ideas, and I really appreciate his many comments and suggestions to improving my work. I further wish to thank Kjellmar Oksavik for great support these years. In addition to scientific contributions, Kjellmar has given me invaluable software help“.

Even though I really appreciated my years as a student in the Space Physics Group in Bergen, I was keenly aware that the research group was in trouble. Around the year 2000, a report on behalf of the Research Council of Norway suggested to close down the Space Physics group at UiB. If that advice had been acted upon, there wouldn’t have existed a Birkeland Centre for Space Science today.

However, after working three years at the Space Sciences Laboratory in Berkeley, USA, Nikolai was appointed as Professor at the Space Physics Group in Bergen in 2004. That started a fairy tale when it comes to space research in Bergen that still goes on today.

Nikolai’s first challenge was to make sure that the Space Physics Group, that had been threatened with closure a few years earlier, would survive. And he got great help, as a promising new student named Karl M. Laundal (today part of the BCSS leader team) was now part of the group. In 2010 it was clear that their mission had been accomplished. On behalf of the Research Council of Norway, an international comittee evaluated 45 research groups in Norway. Only 15 % of the research groups made the top score «excellent», and among these was the Space Physics Group led by Nikolai. Here is a link to an article from UiB (note: only in Norwegian) that has the headline (my translation): «World-class space research».

A few years later, a new milestone in the Bergen space research history was reached, as the Birkeland Centre for Space Science was chosen as one of the thirteen new centers of excellence (among 129 applicants). The Department of Physics and Technology at UiB would be the host department for the new centre, with approximately 75 % of its people working in Bergen. Also scientists from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, as well as the University Centre in Svalbard, were integrated in BCSS both scientifically and by providing data from world-class ground-based facilities.

Since 2013, the numerous achievements by BCSS researchers have been many and impressive, and it was therefore of no surprise that the midterm evaluation by the Research Council of Norway in 2017 worked out very well. In fact, the evaluation committee gave BCSS an overall assessment of “exceptional”. In addition, the committee found that scientific research at the Centre “is of the highest caliber with an outstanding international reputation”.

Since then the great work has continued, and therefore I wanted to share with you some of the great achievements that have been made during the last 2-3 years. This includes, of course, the ASIM-project, but before we return to the historic launch, I will provide some background when it comes to ASIM.

About 30 years ago, some unexpected lightning was discovered to occur above thunderclouds. These transient luminous events were of different types and were given mythical names like e.g. blue jets, elves, and red sprites. Another phenomena found to sometimes occur during storm clouds was the production of gamma rays, and these were known as terrestrial gamma-ray flashes (TGFs).

Credit DTU Space; TGF: NASA.

The first initiative to study these new phenomena was taken i Denmark, as Torstein Neubert from Danmarks Tekniske Universitet established the ASIM (Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor) project in the beginning of this century. Early in the process, the Norwegian firm IDEAS was identified as a suitable company to produce components, and therefore Neubert was also looking for a Norwegian partner into the ASIM project. The Space Physics Group in Bergen was a likely candidate, due to its strong position internationally when it came to knowledge of and construction of X-ray cameras. At the same time, Nikolai Østgaard had recently been hired as a Professor in Bergen, after working three years at the Space Sciences Laboratory in Berkeley, USA. During his time abroad, Nikolai had been working under the leadership of Stephen Mende, one of the world’s foremost space scientists, and thanks to Mende’s warm recommendations, the Space Physics Group in Bergen became part of the ASIM-project in 2004.

In 2018 – 14 years later – the day was about to come. On Monday April 2, 2018, the ASIM payload was to be launched into space from Cape Canaveral in Florida, USA, with a SpaceX rocket. By then mounting ASIM on the international space station, the ASIM instruments would have a front-row to terrestrial gamma-ray flashes and transient luminous events occuring above thunderclouds.

ASIM consists of two scientific instruments named MMIA (Modular Multi-Imaging Assembly) and MXGS (Modular X and Gamma Ray Instrument). While MMIA is an optical imaging system observing light in the 777.4 nm and 337 nm bands, MXGS is a pair of terrestrial gamma-ray flash detectors. Most of MXGS have been developed and build at the Birkeland Centre for Space Science by some of the finest engineers there are. This includes Professor Kjetil Ullaland and Senior Engineer Georgi Genov (see image below), that was part of the group travelling to Florida to watch the launch live.

Professor Kjetil Ullaland (left) and Senior Engineer Georgi Genov (right).

Below is a videoblog that was made on the way to Florida, where Georgi Genov gives some insight in one of the many challenges they faced during the years while building the X-ray and gamma detector for ASIM:

The ASIM launch attracted interest from all over the world, including Norway of course. In the image below we see BCSS leader Nikolai Østgaard together with TV2 journalist Fredrik Græsvik, on their way to the Kennedy Space Center campus for an interview.

Fredrik Græsvik, TV2 (left) and BCSS-leader Nikolai Østgaard (right).

Then the day was finally here, so let us return to the countdown…


Finally the time has arrived. Falcon 9 is ready to leave the ground. The guests on-site Cape Canaveral have been told many times that there is no time for selfie sticks nor expensive photo equipments! Now they should instead just relax and watch and really feel the launch with all their senses. This will be a once in a lifetime experience! The countdown goes to 0 and first it looks like the rocket is hardly moving at all. It’s like everything is in slow motion. But then the rocket starts accelerating upwards and suddenly one feels the vibrations.

Falcon 9 on its way into space with ASIM onboard. Copyright: Gunnar Mæhlum.

All faces looks at the sky with a childlike joy. Hours of waiting have suddenly ended during a few minutes, and one can hear laughter from some very relieved people.

Both joy and relief can be seen in the faces of BCSS leader Nikolai Østgaard and
UiB-rector Dag Rune Olsen after a
successful ASIM-launch. Photo: Olaf Gundersen, UiB.

The relief is no less noticeable back home in Bergen. Finally it is time for some champagne.

The mood is at its peak in Bergen after a successful ASIM-launch. Photo: Skjalg Ekeland, BA.

In the video blog below, you can relive the exciting day. Also, this text by Kavitha Østgaard on the historic ASIM-launch is really worth reading.

Here is a movie from SpaceX showing the whole ASIM launch:

11 days later, on Fridag 13th of April, ASIM was retrieved from the Dragon capsule and installed on the Columbus module on the International Space Station. Finally ASIM was ready to start studying enigmatic light phenomena and high-energy gamma radiation.

Not surprisingly, the ASIM launch attracted much media attention, and here you find links to more than 400 news media articles from all over the world.

The following year, the ASIM projected was subjected to lots of interest, as seen from the list below:

Groundbreaking ASIM results reach the cover of both Science and Nature

Since it was launched and mounted outside the International Space Station in 2018, the ASIM instrument has led to many groundbreaking results about gamma-ray flashes and lightning. This has been met with international recognition, and examplified by an almost impossible achievement; two frontpages in Science and Nature during a 12-month period!

Note: For those of you who are unaware: Science and Nature are the two most recognized scientific journals in the natural sciences. There is intense competition among researchers from all over the world to have their scientific results published in these two journals. Of more than 40 000 submitted papers each year, less than 10 percent are published. Promotion on the cover page is even more prestigious.

On December 10, 2019 – a slew of new discoveries about the mysterious gamma ray flashes that come from Earths thunderclouds were unveiled by Nikolai Østgaard during a talk he gave at the traditional AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco.

AGU (the American Geophysical Union) also issued its own press release entitled “Scientists unveil new discoveries about gamma ray flashes coming from thunderstorms“.

The groundbreaking results caused lots of media attention all over the world, as seen here. This was followed by the greatest recognition: The new discovery about gamma ray flashes from ASIM was promoted on the cover page of Science in January 2020! The last time a group in Norway received a similar recognition was 10 years ago, when a paper by Karl M. Laundal and Nikolai Østgaard about asymmetries in the northern and southern lights became the front page of Nature.

One year later, history (almost) repeated itself! On January 20th, 2021, the paper (Neubert et al., 2021) on the observations of a blue jet by the ASIM instrument, was promoted on the cover page of Nature. Blue jets are lightning-like electric discharges that shoot out of the cloud top and can reach altitudes of ~50 km and last for hundreds of milliseconds. They are most prominently seen in the blue part of the spectrum, therefore their name. In the new Nature paper entitled “Observation of the onset of a blue jet into the stratoshere”, five intense 10-microsecond blue flashes from a thunderstorm cell had been explored, giving new insight into the mechanisms that lead to production of blue jets. The study was led by Torsten Neubert and his group at Denmark Technical University (DTU) with the leader of BCSS, Nikolai Østgaard as co-author.

Below is an animation of the phenomena:

Credit: DTU Space, Mount Visual / Daniel Schmelling

Asymmetric geospace

Another success story in recent years is the impressive work on asymmetric geospace by BCSS researchers.

For many years, scientists assumed the aurora seen around the north pole was identical to the aurora seen around the south pole. The poles are connected by magnetic field lines and auroral displays are caused by charged particles streaming along these field lines. Because the charged particles follow these field lines, it would make sense that the auroras would be mirror images of each other.

In 2009, Karl M. Laundal and Nikolai Østgaard published a groundbreaking study in Nature, showing that auroras can look completely different around the north pole and the south pole, including having different shapes and occurring at different locations – a phenomenon called asymmetry. Their results actually made it to the front page of Nature:

Ten years later, the BCSS researchers were now able to explain both how asymmetries occur, and also how they are removed again. In order to better explain what is considered a paradigm shift of our understanding of the dynamics of near-Earth space, an animation was produced

In this article on the BCSS webpage, the findings are discussed in detail, revealing that it has indeed been a group effort for many years; including papers by Karl M. Laundal et al. (2018), Anders Ohma et al. (2018), Jone Reistad et al. (2016, 2018), Paul Tenfjord et al. (2015, 2016, 2018), and Nikolai Østgaard et al. (2018).

To promote the new and groundbreaking findings, AGU published a press release on January 24, 2019, entitled “NEW STUDY PRESENTS SURPRISING EXPLANATION FOR DIFFERENCES IN SOUTHERN AND NORTHERN LIGHTS“. This resulted in more than 100 media news articles around the world, including the one below from no other than the New York Times!

To underline the importance of the findings about asymmetric geospace, I will quote Mike Liemohn, editor-in-chief of JGR-Space Physics:

This study explains both how asymmetries are created and how they are removed and it is exactly opposite of what I and many researchers have thought. Therefore, this result is kind of big deal”.

A Space Hurricane Observed for the First Time

On February 22th 2021, the paper (Zhang et al., 2021) of the first observations of a space hurricane was published in Nature Communications. The groundbreaking result caused lots of media coverage all over the world, and a complete media list of almost 400 articles is provided here.

Co-author and professor at BCSS, Kjellmar Oksavik, has played an important role in the new and remarkable findings, and on the Birkeland webpage he gives more insight into the remarkable findings:

Hurricanes are well-known in the Earth’s lower atmosphere, causing destruction and harm to people and infrastructure. We had no idea that a similar phenomenon could be found in the upper polar atmosphere, several hundred kilometers above the ground”.

The space hurricane was observed on August 20, 2014, when four DMSP (Defense Meteorological Satellite Program) satellites detected a cyclone-like auroral spot around the north magnetic pole, having a diameter over 1000 km with multiple arms and anti-clockwise rotation. After showing its presence for nearly 8 hours, the space hurricane gradually decayed and merged into the duskside auroral oval.

An intriguing finding is that the space hurricane occurred under conditions associated with very low geomagnetic activity, suggesting that we shouldn’t expect much activity at all” Oksavik explains. “There was a long period of several hours of steady northward interplanetary magnetic field and very low solar wind density and speed. Despite these extremely quiet conditions, the space hurricane funneled high fluxes of energized electrons into the upper polar atmosphere at a comparable level to moderate geomagnetic storms”.

The fact that the space hurricane was associated with quiet geomagnetic conditions makes Oksavik believe that there may be more space hurricanes to report in the future: “Usually we are not exploring observations under such quiet times, so our findings are indeed exciting. It seems like we may have stumbled upon a new mode of solar wind – magnetosphere – ionosphere coupling that nobody was aware of. We researchers strive every day to understand the intriguing question of “how Earth is coupled to space”. This time I think we have discovered an important new part of the puzzle”.

A Truly Impressive Research Centre

I believe BCSS is truly an impressive research centre. As shown above, groundbreaking results have been achieved when it comes to both the ASIM project, the asymmetric geospace, as well as this new and remarkable space hurricane finding. However, there are so many other things to report, and below I will present just a few snapshots from recent years:


Winners of the TMS Starting Grant in 2019: from left, Jenny Mjösberg, Karl M. Laundal, and Eirik Hovden.

Karl M. Laundal being one of three winners of the prestigious TMS (Trond Mohn Foundation) Starting Grant in December 2019, Hilde Nesse Tyssøy winning the prestigious Fulbright Stipend in December 2018 and the Young CAS fellowship in February 2019, BCSS master’s student Elise Knutsen (NTNU) winning the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) Interactive Presentation Award in Washington, D.C. for her thesis in October 2019, BCSS student Ole Martin Borge (NTNU), winning the annual NIFRO Prize for his Master’s thesis in June 2021, as well as all the research projects receiving funding, like the three ones at the end of 2019 led by respectively Hilde, Karl M. and Ville Maliniemi.

New and exiting projects

E.g. the EZIE project. In December 2020, NASA selected the EZIE mission to study electric currents in Earth’s atmosphere that link aurora to the Earth’s magnetosphere. Launch is scheduled for 2024. Jesper Gjerloev is the Project Scientist for the EZIE mission, which he leads together with PI Sam Yee at APL, Johns Hopkins University. Karl Magnus Laundal is Co-I and Lead for Current Inversions. Also involved in the EZIE science team is Professor Patrick Espy of NTNU, who has a role as collaborator.

Artist’s conception of the EZIE mission. EZIE consists of three SmallSats that will study the auroral electrojet, which are electrical currents flowing above the poles that link the beautiful aurora to the Earth’s magnetosphere, and which responds to solar activity and other drivers. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

Impressive and enthusiastic students

BCSS have been blessed with lots of great students over the years, bringing knowledge, hard-work, dedication as well as enthusiasm into the group, E.g. Katie Herlingshaw, that describes her research in the clip below from 2018:

Another great example is Annet Eva Zawedde, who wrote in 2018 an impressive opinion piece in Ugandas largest newspaper, New Vision. As a PhD student, she wanted to encourage young people to invest in the study of science. Not just to get jobs and secure their futures, but because the hard sciences are the underpinning of modern technologies. Young minds are needed to further our understanding of the world we live in and to enable us to develop technologies that are needed in the future.

Also, I want to highlight master student Amalie Øie Hovland. In an interview by the UiB student paper Studvest in the fall of 2020, Amalie explains the work on her master’s thesis. In addition, the article fokuses on the fact that physics studies traditionally have been dominated by men. Amalie confirms that this was true during her bachelor education, but now as a master’s student at the Birkeland Centre for Space Science, she experiences a much better gender balance. Here is a link to the article (only in Norwegian).

Master Student Amalie Øie Hovland at BCSS. Photo: Johanne Marlene Hansen.

Heavy Metal and Rock in Space

In this age of social meda, it is great to see that BCSS research sometimes is able to break through all the noise on e.g. twitter and become the story of the day, as shown below:

In an exciting twitter thread recently, ESA highlights a new paper by Stein Haaland et al. [2021] entitled “Heavy Metal and Rock in Space: Cluster RAPID Observations of Fe and Si“.

The full twitter text reads:

First latin music, then heavy metal, and now heavy rock! A recent @ESA_Cluster study looks into the prevalence of iron and silicon in the magnetosphere, finding these heavy ions originate in the solar wind. The four @ESA_Cluster spacecraft, named Rumba, Samba, Salsa & Tango, have been studying Earth’s magnetic environment and its interaction with the #solarwind in three dimensions for more than 20 years. Long-term study has allowed scientists to map heavy metals in space surrounding #Earth making a surprising discovery about the abundance of iron. A paper published this year extends the survey to silicon and finds both iron and silicon abundances are modulated by solar activity, with increased detections during solar max, confirming their origin in the #solarwind. The detection of these heavy ions provides valuable information on the transport of matter in the Solar System, relevant to understanding our planet’s origin and evolution“.

The history of the Cluster satellites is pretty fascinating; it was supposed to be a 2-year mission but last year Cluster was heading into its third decade! The Space Physics group at the University of Bergen (today known as the Birkeland Centre for Space Science) has played an important part throughout the entire Cluster mission, building part of the RAPID instrument as well as performing data analysis. This new paper by Haaland et al. [2021] adds to an impressive list of papers in recent years by researchers at BCSS using Cluster data to study our near-Earth space. More examples are found in a news story BCSS published in April 2020 entitled “The Cluster satellites keep flying“.

Below follow the five tweets from the account ESA Science:

The interplay between climate change and the aurora

In May 2020, Ville Maliniemi, Hilde Nesse Tyssøy and Christine Smith-Johnsen published a popular science article on forskersonen.no (in Norwegian) about their recent GRL-publication entitled «Will climate change impact polar NOx produced by energetic particle precipitation?» A link to the article (only in Norwegian).

Then in January 2021, Ville Maliniemi was interviewed by the Finnish newspaper Iltalehti. The topic of the article was weather forecasting, and whether there is a link between auroral activity and the winter climate on the Northern Hemisphere.

Research Days in Bergen

Every year (one week in September), the annual Research Days takes place. BCSS has participated every year since 2013 to bring exciting science out to youths as well as the general public. The main driver has been Kjartan Olafsson, as well as master- and PhD students, and below are some of the many pictures taken during the years.

Next Step – a truly memorable experience

As shown in this blog post, I am truly impressed by the many great achievements made by the Birkeland Centre for Space Science, in particular all the great things they have done in recent years. In fact, I have had the privilege to be part of one particular “success story” a few years ago, namely in September 2019. In collaboration with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and the University of Bergen, BCSS hosted a concert named “Space“. This concert was the first in the “Next Step” concert series whose goal is to unite science and art and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing.

To represent BCSS on stage and give a talk, I had the great honour together with PhD student Susanne Flø Spnnanger. Below is a clip of the presentation, and as you can see, it ends with a greeting from space by ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano calling from the International Space Station.

After this introduction by Susanne and myself, it was time for Deep Field by Eric Whitacre and then Symphony no. 4 by Gustav Mahler. The latter with the fabolous Caroline Wettergreen. Enjoy 🙂