Cosmic Magnetic Fields

Credit: ESA/ATG Medialab

The research area of “Cosmic Magnetic Fields” is dedicated to the exploration of solar, stellar, and galactic magnetic fields, along with the underlying magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) mechanisms that generate them. Magnetic fields drive the non-thermal output of many cosmic objects, in particular that of the Sun and other stars. It is the agent responsible for spectral atmospheric activity that in turn governs star-planet interactions. The existence of stellar and planetary magnetic fields is a decisive factor for the formation and evolution of life on planets, as magnetic fields are shields against high-energy cosmic radiation. Their existence also ensures the further evolution and survival of civilisations like ours. Yet the magnetic field is still among the least-studied unknowns of the universe.

Research at the AIP aims at understanding the complex interplay between the structure of matter, the geometry and strength of magnetic fields and their feedback. These topics are connected and focused by the "solar-stellar connection". Supercomputers are used for MHD simulations as well as large telescopes such as the LBT and the VLT and smaller robotic telescopes such as STELLA for high-resolution spectroscopy and spectral polarimetry. The main projects are STELLA and PEPSI, the solar telescope GREGOR and its Fabry-Perot interferometer GFPI, the "radio sun" with LOFAR, the imager of the STIX instrument for Solar Orbiter, the HIRES spectrograph for the ESO ELT (with polarimeter), as well as ground-based support for the ESA PLATO mission with the BMK10k project in Chile.


Extragalactic Astrophysics

Spiral galaxy
Credit: ESO

Galaxies are fundamental cosmic building blocks. They serve as markers to explore the distribution of matter in the Universe on large scales. Active Galaxies and Quasars are particularly important. Nearby objects can be resolved spatially and are allocated to populations of different kinematics, stellar formation history and chemical abundances. Methods of 3D spectroscopy as an integral part of the technology programme of the institute are especially relevant to these objects. Galaxies in our direct cosmic neighbourhood, and in the Milky Way, can be resolved into individual stars. As stellar populations conserve the chemical and kinematic conditions from the time of their birth, the formation history of those galaxies can be reconstructed in impressive detail and a galaxy becomes a cosmic laboratory.

This relatively new field of research is also known as “Galactic Archaeology” or “Near-field Cosmology”. Theoretical studies further examine and link these different aspects of extragalactic research with high-resolution numerical simulations.


Development of Research Technology and Infrastructure

Persons with safety helmets work on the backside of a telescope in a big hall
Credit: AIP/A. Saviauk

Owing to the size of the cosmos and the objects within, it is rarely possible to emulate cosmic conditions in terrestrial labs, let alone perform physical experiments with astrophysical objects. Ever improving observations provide the only way to verify the properties of these objects. Astrophysicists observe the sky, mostly using a small number of very large telescopes, which are placed on sites with nearly optimum atmospheric conditions such as Arizona, Chile, or in space. Astrophysics continually pushes the limits of technological feasibility. And today, powerful computer simulations allow to test astrophysical theories and interpretation of observations.

As astrophysical systems are very complex, the demands on the available computer hardware and software are extreme, and astrophysicists have always been amongst the power-users of national and international supercomputer centres.

Last update: 22. February 2021