To Armagh and back again: A solar physicist’s mission

6 Dec 2023

Image: Louise Harra

Prof Louise Harra shines a light on the ‘real discovery science’ taking place at the very centre of our solar system.

According to NASA, there are 19 active missions to study the sun and 13 upcoming. Our planet’s connections to and interactions with this hot ball of glowing gases at the centre of our solar system are the cause of our seasons, ocean currents, weather patterns, climate, radiation and auroras. Our sun is essential to our existence – it’s therefore no surprise that many scientists choose to study it.

One such scientist is Prof Louise Harra, who is a solar physicist at ETH Zürich, director of PMOD/WRC (World Radiation Center) and a member of the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium management team.

“I research what causes solar storms and the fast wind that constantly buffets us here on Earth,” Harra tells

Harra has worked on many exciting missions in her career. These include the Japanese Hinode mission which was launched in 2006 and the European Space Agency (ESA) Solar Orbiter mission that was launched in 2020.

“The instruments developed for these [missions] by large international teams have contributed to some of the most significant moments in astronomy. They have allowed us to launch spacecraft, to obtain the first data and to publish the first science papers” Harra says.

Burning questions

On the Solar Orbiter mission, Harra says it’s possible to “get closer to the sun with telescopes than ever before”.

“The data that we’re gleaning from this is of amazing quality and we are seeing new things with each new orbit.”

Harra explains that the mission is slowly changing its angle relative to the plane that the Earth and the sun sit at, “which will allow us to obtain the first ever view of the solar poles”.

“This is real discovery science.”

Just recently, the Solar Orbiter contributed to furthering our understanding of why the sun’s atmosphere is 150 times hotter than its surface. Researchers theorised that turbulence in the solar atmosphere could result in its heating up.

To investigate this, the Solar Orbiter and NASA’s Parker Solar Probe were used to produce the first ever large-scale simultaneous measurements of the sun. A research paper about the findings of this manoeuvre was published in September in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

It all started in Armagh

Hailing from Lurgan in Co Armagh, Harra is proud to work with Armagh Observatory and Planetarium, which she describes as being “at the forefront of astronomy” with “a rich scientific history”.

It was during a school trip to the planetarium that she was inspired to study astronomy. “It sparked a passion,” she says.

“I visited Armagh Planetarium when I was in primary school and it was just so new, interesting and engaging. The experience could never have been replicated during a typical school lesson.”

Harra continues to be inspired by that formative experience. In her role with the planetarium, she encourages children “to explore the world around them and stay curious”.

“The organisation’s work is so important as it allows all children to discover their strengths.

“Science and technology are key to nearly everything that we do nowadays, so it’s imperative that we inspire new generations to develop the bright ideas needed to solve the big questions.”

To inspire the next generation of STEM leaders, Harra says funding is essential.

“Countries often choose to cut fundamental science funding when times are difficult; however, it is incredibly important for discovering new solutions to existing problems.

“Fundamental science pushes technology and knowledge forward in a way that is critical for humanity to survive.

“The same is true of funding for educational centres, such as Armagh Observatory and Planetarium, which delivers internationally recognised research in astronomy and related sciences, and vibrant educational and outreach programmes for all ages.”

The spark of leadership

As a principal investigator, Harra not only works to inspire the next generation but also the current crop of scientists on her team. She describes her role as “interesting and rewarding but has its difficulties”.

“A principal investigator leads an international team of scientists to design, develop, build and operate an instrument. This is of course challenging due to differing time zones, and the need to communicate complex technical information and deal with funding issues in different countries.”

There is also the complication of bringing together people from various disciplines to work together on these large-scale projects. “A wide range of skills is required within teams that build space instruments: from software development to mechanical engineering, thermal engineering, electronics engineering, project management, systems engineering and science,” Harra explains.

Last month, Harra was awarded 2023 Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin Medal and Prize by the Institute of Physics for “pioneering contributions to the development of extreme ultraviolet imaging and spectroscopy instrumentation for solar space missions and its application to further our understanding of dynamic activity on the sun”.

The award recognises her “numerous and outstanding achievements and contributions to the field”.

Harra has many achievements under her belt but with so much still to discover, she’s not done yet.

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Rebecca Graham is production editor at Silicon Republic