The Quest for Ancient Space Weather Reports

The great auroral display seen in Augsburg on 6 March 1582, reproduced in Usoskin et al. (2023) with permission from Zentralbibliothek Zürich, Department of Prints and Drawings/Photo Archive (shelfmark: ZB Graphische Sammlung (GSB), PAS II 19/4).
The great auroral display seen in Augsburg on 6 March 1582, reproduced in Usoskin et al. (2023) with permission from Zentralbibliothek Zürich, Department of Prints and Drawings/Photo Archive (shelfmark: ZB Graphische Sammlung (GSB), PAS II 19/4).
Earliest Records of Solar Events

The Sun often produces eruptive events on different energetic and temporal scales. It might, however, also produce events, so-called extreme solar events, whose energy could be orders of magnitude greater than anything we have observed during recent decades. But what is an extreme solar event? How strong can they be and how often do they occur?

To find answers to these and other questions, the ISSI team around Fusa Miyake from Nagoya University in Japan and Ilya Usoskin from Oulu University in Finland went back, far back in time.

Using a combined approach with so far unused measured and archival data, the team studies extreme space weather events that would have catastrophic impact not only on our astronauts and their equipment, but also on our power and communications infrastructure here on the ground.

The examined historical records date back over three millennia! One significant finding is the earliest documented reports of candidate aurorae known today, with a Babylonian astronomer reporting a “red glow” in 567 BCE and possible auroral sightings in Assyrian cuneiform tablets from 679–655 BCE. Additionally, the Bamboo Annals, an ancient Chinese text, describe a celestial event involving a “five-coloured light” in the last year of King Zhāo of the Zhōu Dynasty.

These reports have been correlated with modern records and analysed to determine their likelihood as auroral events, providing insight into ancient space weather occurrences. This research not only extends our space weather chronology but also suggests the existence of a solar minimum around 810–720 BCE, termed the “Neo-Assyrian Grand Minimum“, challenging previous understandings of solar activity during that period.

Read more about this fascinating undertaking in: Usoskin, I., Miyake, F., Baroni, M. et al. Extreme Solar Events: Setting up a Paradigm. Space Sci Rev 219, 73 (2023).

Observing Earth’s Vulnerabilities

Observing potential climate tipping elements following Lenton et al. (2019), where rising global atmospheric temperatures could cause irreversible change to the Earth system. Figure by Fabio Crameri and adjusted from
Observing potential climate tipping elements following Lenton et al. (2019), where rising global atmospheric temperatures could cause irreversible change to the Earth system. Figure adjusted from

ISSI Forum sparks breakthrough guidance for remote sensing collaborations to monitor climate tipping points

In a thoughtful collaboration, an interdisciplinary group of researchers headed by Professor Tim Lenton at the University of Exeter have published a paper offering crucial insights into how to better understand climate tipping points and the role of remote sensing in detecting and monitoring these critical transitions in the Earth’s system. The paper, originating from a Forum held at the International Space Science Institute (ISSI) in Bern, Switzerland, emphasises the minimum criteria for applying remote sensing data to diverse tipping phenomena.

Remote sensing has already provided vital evidence, from tracking the loss of Antarctic Peninsula ice shelves to revealing alternative stable states in vegetation. By combining Earth Observation data and models, the researchers demonstrate the potential for improved predictions of abrupt events, such as droughts or ecosystem loss, with significant implications for food security and regional policy-making. The collaboration highlights the societal benefits of enhanced information on potential tipping points, offering a roadmap for resilience sensing and early warning to navigate the challenges posed by climate change. The ISSI Forum fostered this cross-disciplinary effort, underscoring the importance of collaborative platforms in advancing climate science.

For more details, access the paper here: Lenton, T.M., Abrams, J.F., Bartsch, A. et al. Remotely sensing potential climate change tipping points across scales. Nat Commun 15, 343 (2024).

The Economics and Law of Space-Based Commerce (Conference hosted by WTI and ISSI | 17–18 January 2024)

This conference (17–18 January 2024) will focus on the economics and governance of commercialisation in outer space. It will look at the applicability of economic concepts, the concepts of international economic law, and the concepts of economic governance to space-based commerce.

The goal is twofold: The first goal is identifying promising areas for future research along the lines outlined above, specifically a cross-disciplinary mix of economics, law, political science, and applied natural science. The second goal is to enlist interested researchers in setting up a research and workshop agenda and loose organizational/coordinating structure (a researcher network) based on the areas identified.

The conference will be hosted jointly by the International Space Science Institute and the World Trade Institute.

Find here the complete program >>

You can join online the conference, therefore please register here.

JWST Opens New Scientific and Collaborative Avenues at ISSI

Last July scientists and journalists gathered at ISSI to celebrate the unveiling of the first JWST images and spectra. On this occasion Willy Benz, the new chair of ISSI’s BoT, anticipated that JWST would be an observatory that everyone will want to use. The ISSI community is certainly no exception in this respect, with at least two ISSI International Teams securing JWST observing time this spring.

Among these was ISSI Team #562 “First Light at Cosmic Dawn: Exploiting the James Webb Space Telescope Revolution”, composed of astrophysicists and computer scientists, who are working on one of the core science goals of JWST: finding the first stars and galaxies in the Universe. Discussions on the insights from the initial months of JWST data during their first meeting led Team #562 and their collaborators to submit three proposals that were awarded 153 hours of observing time with three complementary JWST observing modes.

The first survey (GO-4111; PI Wren Suess) titled “Medium bands, Mega Science: Spatially-resolved R~15 spectrophotometry of 50,000 sources at z=0.3-12” is a NIRCam imaging program that leverages the power of medium-band filters combined with cosmological lensing of the Abell2744 cluster/UNCOVER field to efficiently map both stellar continuum and nebular line emission from ionised gas for large, unbiased galaxy samples. By simultaneously probing multiple emission lines the JWST data will measure star formation and dust obscuration and chart the growth of galaxies across >10 Gyrs of cosmic history.

GOODS-S field (NIRCam image) Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, B. Robertson (UC Santa Cruz), B. Johnson (Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian), S. Tacchella (University of Cambridge, M. Rieke (Univ. of Arizona), D. Eisenstein (Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian), A. Pagan (STScI)

The second program obtains spectroscopy with the NIRSpec instrument (GO-4233; PIs de Graaff & Brammer) over existing, public JWST fields: “A complete census of the rare, extreme and red: A NIRCam-selected extragalactic community survey with JWST/NIRSpec”. The main goal is to obtain detailed, spectroscopic information for newly identified galaxies from JWST images to reveal their nature, and doing this at high completeness.

The final program is a combination of the previous two. GO-3516 (PIs Matthee & Naidu) uses slitless spectroscopy at ~3-4 micron over the same galaxy cluster as the first program in order to search for faint, metal-poor emission line sources. The title of this program summarizes its goals: “All the Little Things: Pop III Signatures & the Ionizing Photon Budget of Dwarf Galaxies in the Epoch of Reionization”.

With more than an 8:1 oversubscription rate for proposals in these categories, the successes of ISSI Team #562 are particularly noteworthy. Speaking on behalf of their team members team leaders Pascal Oesch and Michael Maseda highlighted: “The ISSI team meeting was instrumental in putting these successful proposals together, and we are very thankful to the whole ISSI team for providing us with this opportunity.” ISSI is particularly pleased that the first of these three proposals is led by early-career researcher (ECR) Wren Suess, whose participation to the ISSI Team meeting was enabled by ISSI’s dedicated ECR funding line.

Webb NIRCam composite image of Jupiter from three filters – F360M (red), F212N (yellow-green), and F150W2 (cyan) – and alignment due to the planet’s rotation. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Jupiter ERS Team; image processing by Judy Schmidt.

Freshly approved ISSI Team #23-592 “Jupiter’s non-auroral ionosphere” got off to a flying start of its activities with the award of 22 hours with JWST for project GO-3665 (PIs Stallard & Melin). Studying Jupiter’s equatorial ionosphere in more detail with JWST will further the understanding of energy exchange at the top of the atmosphere, by providing improved constraints for ionospheric models. Atmospheric loss occurs only within this upper region, and so characterising the process on Jupiter provides insight into atmospheric erosion and ultimately thresholds the long term evolution of planets both within and outside our own Solar system.

Determining the vertical structure in the ionosphere away from the bright aurora requires a combination of JWST spectral imaging, utilising the NIRSpec instrument’s integral field spectroscopy mode, and spacecraft occultations of the radio signal from Earth. Via JWST project GO-3665, ISSI Team #23-592 plans to measure the ionospheric structure with JWST simultaneously with the first Juno radio occultations of the Jupiter ionosphere on Sep. 7.


In its first year of science operations, JWST has already demonstrated that it is capable of exceeding expectations and making breakthrough observations in many fields of astrophysics.

Looking ahead to the near future, in March 2024 ISSI will organise a workshop on “The chronology of the 1st billion years”. Outlining her expectations for this workshop, ISSI Executive Director and workshop convenor Antonella Nota, says: “JWST was designed to shed (IR) light on what happened in the early stages of the Universe. Now that most observations from the first JWST cycle have been completed, the time is ripe to convene at ISSI all the cosmology experts with early JWST data, to discuss and distill our current understanding of the formation and early evolution of the first stars and galaxies. At ISSI, we felt that this topic was so important that we are dedicating to it our very first Breakthrough Workshop, a workshop that is aimed at addressing one big question in science” Antonella Nota adds: “ISSI is the perfect place to hold such important conversations, by offering a neutral and welcoming environment, and advancing science – one big question at a time.

The ISSI staff look forward to hosting this workshop and to many further exciting JWST results from the ISSI community.

edited by Mark Sargent

Human-Caused Warming and Naturally Occurring Cycles Together Regulate Extreme Ocean Events

Global sea level and extreme ocean events are rising due to human-caused climate change. The amount of rise in sea level and number of increase in extreme events, however, vary greatly from region to region and they also change over time. To fully understand these changes and thus build the capability of predicting when and where they may occur in the future, we must also consider naturally occurring climate variability. By combining in situ and satellite observations with model simulations, Weiqing Han and collaborators recently investigated the sea level Height EXtreme (HEX) events and co-occurring Marine heatwaves, dubbed Compound Height-Heat EXtreme (CHHEX) events, along Indonesian coasts of the Indian Ocean since the 1960s, particular since 1993 when satellite altimetry data have become available. They found out that most of the HEX and CHHEX events occured during the period from 2010 to 2017. Sea level rise due to the anthropogenic warming and naturally occurring decadal climate variability combined to boost up the HEXs from 2010 to 2017. While the individual HEX-alone events are mainly driven by enhanced northwesterly winds associated with the Indian and/or Australian monsoons from December to March, CHHEXs occur in May-June and November-December mainly in years when negative Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) and La Niña, the negative phase of the El Niño – Southern Oscillation (ENSO), co-occur. The ENSO and IOD are the dominant natural internal climate variability patterns at interannual time scale. When they co-occur, the intensified equatorial westerly winds and longshore northwesterly winds drive the HEX and CHHEX events. A recent study – published in Nature Communications in October 2022 – suggests the importance of the interplay between interannual-to-decadal climate variability and anthropogenic warming in shaping the extremes, which may help improve decadal predictions and near-term projections of the high impact extreme events. For further details, see the University of Colorado Boulder news release.

Figure: Linear trend maps of satellite observed sea level and surface wind stress from 1993-2018 (left figure).  Time series of monthly-mean sea level anomalies from tide gauge observation (black curve) at Java coast (location marked “x2” in the left panel), from satellite observation at the nearest grid point (red), and from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) Ocean Reanalysis System 4 (ORAS4) ocean reanalysis data at the nearest location (blue)(right figure). (Credit: W. Han)



Weiqing Han

Prof. Weiqing Han (University of Colorado at Boulder, USA) is elected Fellow of American Meteorological Society in 2023 and was selected as the Johannes Geiss Fellow in 2020. Because of the Covid-related travel restrictions, Weiqing Han visited ISSI for the first time in summer 2023. Weiqing has been working on a number of research topics, including understanding the remote versus local forcing in driving year-to-year variations of the U.S. east coasts sea level, exploring the roles of atmospheric intraseasonal oscillations – particularly the Madden-Julian Oscillation – in causing sea level extremes along the Indonesian coasts, finding new climate patterns in the tropical Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and investigating the Indian-Pacific-monsoon interactions as well as the global linkage of decadal sea level patterns.

edited by Andrea Fischer

“Hubble and the James Webb Space Telescope: A Tale of Two Observatories in Space” with John M. Grunsfeld, NASA Astronaut

The Hubble Space Telescope has been called the most productive scientific instrument in human history. Launched in 1990, the telescope has performed observations which have measured the age of the Universe, confirmed the existence of black holes, discovered the accelerating Universe, and amazed the general public. On Christmas day in 2021 the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was launched into space after decades of development. JWST was designed to extend the view of Hubble in regions of the cosmos Hubble can’t penetrate. JWST is exceeding the grand expectations of its ability to unravel the mysteries of the Universe. Join Astronaut/Astrophysicist John Grunsfeld as he takes us through the stories of Hubble and Webb.

Astronaut John M. Grunsfeld

John M. Grunsfeld is a scientist and former astronaut with extensive experience as a leader in human space exploration, space science missions, and national space policy. He has served as a NASA astronaut, the Associate Administrator for Science, and Chief Scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Previously he served as the Deputy Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, managing the science program for the Hubble Space Telescope and the forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope. Grunsfeld’s scientific research is in planetary science and the search for life beyond Earth. He has deep knowledge in Earth and Climate science and strategies to fight climate change. 

Talk was recorded on June 23, 2023

Swiss Space Community Celebrates Initiation of the James Webb Space Telescope

The consortium of the North American (NASA), European (ESA) and Canadian (CSA) space agencies released a series of first images of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) on 12th July 2022. Swiss contributors from academia, government and industry gathered at the International Swiss Space Institute (ISSI) in Bern to inform about their contributions and projects related to the JWST.

“There is no empty space for the James Webb Space Telescope”, Antonella Nota, Webb Project Scientist and former head of the ESA office at the Space Telescope Science Institute announced at the event at the International Swiss Space Institute (ISSI) in Bern. “The first test image that was released in spring was supposed to capture a sole star in front of an empty space field”, the ESA astronomer explained. “But the image was peppered with galaxies and stars in the background.”

Antonella Nota points out the extraordinary capabilities of JWST. (Image: Guido Schwarz)

This first glimpse proved to be just that: a mere taste of the capabilities of the most modern space telescope. On Tuesday, the first full colour images – so-called Early Release Observations – were released by NASA. “These show a number of especially intriguing objects and regions of the Universe, that are not necessarily of great scientific value but rather demonstrate the incredible capabilities of the telescope”, Nota said.



Passing the Key

Numerous personalities of the national space science community, such as astronaut Claude Nicollier, Willy Benz (NCCR PlanetS, University of Bern), Sascha Quanz (ETH Zürich), David Ehrenreich (University of Genève), Jean-Paul Kneib (EPFL), all ISSI Directors as well as media representatives gathered in Bern for the Swiss press conference. Before they joined the live-feed from NASA, several researchers gave presentation on their JWST projects – including Adrian Glauser, who led the Swiss contribution to the instrument development.

Adrian Glauser explains to the audience how the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) works. (Image: Guido Schwarz)

“The telescope’s only job is basically to gather and focus light”, Glauser said during his presentation. Most of the scientific results will come from the analysis of that light, enabled by four instruments. One of these, the Mid Infrared Instrument (MIRI), was developed with a Swiss contribution that was led by NCCR PlanetS member Adrian Glauser at ETH Zurich since 2007.

The contribution consists of a Contamination Control Cover, which protects MIRI against external contamination during the cooldown phase of the tests and after the launch as well as Cryo-​Cables, which connect the cryogenic mechanisms, calibration sources and temperature sensors of the cold optical bench with the warmer electronics.

MIRI is the only instrument covering the poorly explored wavelength ranges from 5 μm to 28 μm. To be able to do so, it has to be cooled down to minus 266 degrees Celsius (7 degrees above absolute zero), making it the coldest part in the JWST.

“During the past few months we commissioned the instrument and I am glad to say that everything works perfectly. The key therefore now passes from those who developed JWST and its instruments to the researchers who will use them”, Glauser said.

The dawn of a new era in astronomy has begun as the world gets its first look at the full capabilities of the James Webb Space Telescope. The telescope’s first full-colour images and spectras, which uncover a spectacular collection of cosmic features that have remained elusive until now, were released on 12th July 2022. (Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI)


Tracing the Building Blocks of Life

At the event at ISSI, several researchers like Adrian Glauser, Pascal Oesch, Anne Verhamme and Antonella Nota presented what they intend to do with this metaphorical key. Among them, NCCR PlanetS associate and Uni Bern researcher Beatrice Kulterer. She is involved in the so-called Ice Age project, that aims to track the essential molecular ingredients of life from their formation in dense molecular interstellar clouds to their eventual incorporation into the planet-forming regions around young stars.

“The Rosetta space research mission already revealed that organic molecules, such as the amino acid glycine, exist on comets”, Kulterer said. “But it is unclear to what extent these molecules end up in forming planets. The James Webb Telescope will for the first time allow us to study this in great detail.”

“I follow the development of JWST since my time as an undergraduate student. I am very excited to finally be able to work with it and hope to spend a large part of my research career doing so”, Kulterer concluded.

by Arian Bastani