Ph.D. in Space Science

Information below is intended for prospective students who are considering a Doctoral degree in Space Science from UAH. All questions about enrolling in our Ph.D. program should be directed to Renita Wasilefsky. She can be reached at (256) 961-7323 or (256) 961-7479.


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Faculty members Nick Pogorelov and Jacob Heerikhuisen with SPA graduate students.


Requirements for a Ph.D. degree

  1. Complete the core coursework (24 credit hours), see Core courses below.
  2. Complete an additional 18 credit hours of elective courses. These are chosen from the Elective courses list.
  3. Pass a Comprehensive Examination ("Comps"). The Comps are offered annually during the Summer semester and consist of three sections: (a) Electromagnetic theory, (b) Classical and quantum statistics, and (c) Plasma physics. A passing grade of 60% or above in all three sections is required for a Ph.D. pass.
  4. Give at least two seminar (Journal Club) presentations. Students are encouraged to share the results of their research work with their peers and faculty members. Journal Club presentations are part of the regular Space Science seminar series.
  5. Pass a Ph.D. qualifier exam. This step involves writing a dissertation proposal and forming a Ph.D. committee, that would normally consist of the student's faculty adviser and at least three other members from the UAH graduate faculty. We encourage students to invite at least one committee member from another department or research center.
  6. Complete 18 credit hours of dissertation units (SPA799).
  7. Write and defend a Ph.D. dissertation.
  8. Student must have a first authored peer reviewed paper published or accepted in a major international journal before their graduation date. Examples of acceptable journals include The Astrophysical Journal, Journal of Geophysical Research, Physics of Plasmas, Geophysical Research Letters, and Physical Review.


Core courses

SPA522 Introduction to Plasma Physics

Provides students with an introduction to the basic physical processes associated with plasmas which permeate all space environments. Both particle and fluid approaches are introduced, and a variety of elementary drift and wave phenomena are derived. Applications of the theory to various plasma instabilities are explored, along with specific examples of where these may occur in space science. While the goal of this course is to prepare students for more advanced topics in space physics, many of the fundamentals covered are equally relevant for students interested in plasma confinement and its associated engineering challenges.

MA607 Mathematical Methods I
MA609 Mathematical Methods II
SPA622 Classical and Quantum Statistics

Statistical methods, systems of particles, statistical thermodynamics, kinetic theory, methods of statistical mechanics, applications of statistical mechanics, equilibrium between phases of chemical species. Quantum statistics of identical particles. Spin and statistics. Bose-Einstein and Fermi-Dirac distributions.

PH631 Electromagnetic Theory I
PH732 Electromagnetic Theory II
SPA623 Transport Processes in Space

Course presents a systematic treatment of classical and anomalous transport theory for gases, plasmas, energetic particles, and low frequency turbulence. The Chapman-Enskog approach is used to derive transport coefficients for neutral gases and collisional plasmas. The relationship between multi-fluid and MHD models is presented. Weak solutions and shock waves are discussed. The transport of energetic particles that experience scattering by magnetic field fluctuations is presented, together with basic models of the turbulence responsible for scattering and turbulence transport in expanding flows such as the solar wind.

SPA624 Space Physics I

A broad introduction to particle, MHD, and kinetic phenomena in space. This course is intended for all students interested in space, astro-, and plasma physics. Course covers fusion processes inside the Sun, solar neutrinos, solar atmosphere, coronal magnetic fields, physical mechanisms of magnetic field line reconnection and magnetic dynamo, the interaction between the solar wind with planets and the interstellar medium, corotating and merged interaction regions, collisional and collisionless shock waves in space. Includes an introduction to charged particle acceleration in the heliosphere. Examines differences between planetary magnetospheres, solar-terrestrial relationships, solar activity, climate, and culture.

Elective Courses

SPA625 Space Physics II

The course develops a deeper understanding and knowledge of plasma instabilities, kinetic dispersion relations, microinstabilities, electrostatic and electromagnetic instabilities; advanced magnetohydrodynamics including MHD turbulence, reconnection; wave-particle interactions, including basic quasi-linear theory; weak and strong wave turbulence; nonlinear waves; collisionless shock waves.

SPA626 Introduction to Space Weather

Physics of solar active regions, physics of solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs), the propagation of CMEs, the acceleration and propagation of solar energetic particles, CME interaction with earth's magnetosphere.

SPA627 High Energy Radiation Detection and Measurement

This course will provide students with basic understanding of radiation detection for space-­‐based missions. This course will cover the basic nuclear processes in radioactive sources and the interaction of radiation with matter. The statistical treatment of experimental data will be reviewed. General characteristics common to all types of detectors will be given. We will then cover specific classes of detectors focusing on ionization, scintillation and semiconductor detectors. Light collection and detection techniques will follow. The student will then be introduced to basic signal processing and timing techniques important to a successful instrument design. This course will be taught from a physicist point of view emphasizing the physical processes and interactions that make detection of radiation possible. This course is suitable for those students interested in detector development or astrophysical data analysis using the state­‐of­‐the­‐art technology.

SPA628 Solar Physics

The workings of the sun, from its interior to the outer reaches of the corona with emphasis on the observations. Energy release in core of the Sun and its transport to the solar atmosphere. Dynamo process and the 11 year solar activity cycle. Formation of active regions and structure of sunspots. The structure of corona, with particular details on the active region corona and its heating to several million kelvin. Energy release processes including solar flares and coronal mass ejections.

SPA629 Astrophysical Fluid Dynamics

Covers astrophysical phenomena occurring outside the boundaries of the solar system. Subjects include stellar structure and rotation, waves and instabilities in astrophysical plasmas, the physics of spherical and disk accretion, supernova blast waves, and charged particle transport and acceleration in cosmic plasmas. Introduction to the principles of stellar formation, helioseismology, stellar dynamo, coronal heating, and astrophysical turbulence.

SPA630 Waves in Fluids

Comprehensive introduction to the science of wave motions in fluids. Waves and first-order (hyperbolic) equations, wave hierarchies; gas dynamics and fluid equations; acoustics, nonlinear plane waves, simple waves, shock waves and structure, shock reflection, similarity solutions, supersonic flows in gas dynamics; the wave equation, including plane, spherical and cylindrical waves, geometrical optics, including far-field approximation, caustics, nonhomogeneous media, anisotropy; water waves, including shallow water theory; group velocity, dispersion; nonlinear waves, including Korteweg-de Vries, sine-Gordon, and nonlinear Schroedinger equations, solitons.

SPA662 Computational Physics

Numerical methods to solve common physics problems using C or Fortran. Numerical integration and differentiation, root finding, data fitting, introductory stochastic methods, linear and non-linear differential equations, Fourier analysis.  Elliptic, parabolic, hyperbolic partial differential equations via finite differences, integro-indifferential equations. Applications to classical dynamics, electromagnetism, statistical and quantum physics.

SPA663 Computational Fluid Dynamics and MHD

Numerical simulations of various problems in space physics, astrophysics, engineering, and plasma dynamics. Finite-volume and finite-difference, shock-capturing and shock-fitting methods for hyperbolic equations, including gas dynamics, MHD, and shallow water equations. The hierarchy of numerical methods is introduced in a systematic way, starting from standard linear schemes and arriving at modern discontinuity-capturing non-linear methods. Exact and approximate Riemann solvers, characteristic analysis of underlying equations. Different implementations of boundary conditions are introduced in relation with the mathematical properties of quasilinear hyperbolic systems.

SPA741 Physics of Cosmic Rays

Covers two principal areas of cosmic ray physics: (i) cosmic ray origin and acceleration, and (ii) cosmic ray transport and detection. Includes galactic cosmic rays, anomalous cosmic rays, and solar energetic particles. Transport theory, acceleration mechanisms and observational signatures.

SPA742 Gamma Ray Bursts and Jets

Astrophysical jet sources: kinetic and magnetically-dominated relativistic outflows. Blandford-McKee solution. Photospheres. Relativistic shock physics. Emission in relativistic plasmas. Gamma-ray bursts: observations, theory.

SPA771 Competitive Grant Writing Workshop

This course is designed for senior level graduate students who are about to graduate and start their professional career. It will introduce students to the real and complete process of competing for grant support. It is comprised of a series of lectures (workshops), case studies,  and ends with a formal proposal from each participant and a mock review process.

SPA689 Selected Topics
SPA789 Selected Topics

In addition, the following courses offered in other departments will count toward the 18 credit hour elective course requirement: PH574, PH601, PH651, PH652, PH661, MAE520, MAE651.


A typical Ph.D. curriculum

 Year 1  Fall

 Introduction to Plasma Physics (3)

 Classical and Quantum Statistics (3)

 Mathematical Methods I (3)


 Electromagnetic Theory I (3)

 Mathematical Methods II (3)

 Space Physics I (3)

 Year 2  Fall

 Space Physics II (3)

 Electromagnetic Theory II (3)

 Computational Physics (3)


 Transport Processes in Space (3)

 Astrophysical Fluid Dynamics (3)

 Detectors and Instrumentation (3)

 Year 3  Fall

 Solar Physics (3)

 Waves in Fluids (3)

 Physics of Cosmic Rays (3)


 Space Weather (3)

 Computational Fluid Dynamics and MHD (3)

 Doctoral Dissertation (3)

 Competitive Grant Writing Workshop (1)

 Year 4  Fall

 Gamma Ray Bursts and Jets (3)

 Doctoral Dissertation (3)

 Doctoral Dissertation (3)


 Doctoral Dissertation (3)

 Doctoral Dissertation (3)

 Doctoral Dissertation (3)