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Liz MacDonald
Alma mater

University of New Hampshire

University of Washington
Known for Aurorasaurus
Scientific career

Los Alamos National Laboratory

Goddard Space Flight Center

Elizabeth "Liz" MacDonald is a space weather scientist who works at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. She is the co-investigator on the Helium, Oxygen, Proton, and Electron Spectrometer on the NASA Radiation Belts Storm Probe mission.


Elizabeth MacDonald was born to Walla Wallans Bill and Alice MacDonald.[1] MacDonald received a BSc in Physics from the University of Washington, funded by a NASA Space Grant scholarship, in 1999.[2] Her mentor, Ruth Skoug, encouraged her to remain in research.[3] MacDonald completed her postgraduate studies the University of New Hampshire, earning her PhD in 2005.[4]


MacDonald is interested in plasma mass spectrometry, and has 15 years expertise in instrument development and data analysis/interpretation.

After completing her PhD, MacDonald joined Los Alamos National Laboratory. At LANL she was the Principal Investigator for the Z-Plasma Spectrometer on the Department of Energy Space and Atmospheric Burst Reporting System geosynchronous payload.[5] She also led the Innovative Research and Integrated Sensing team.[6] She was principal investigator for the Advanced Miniaturized Plasma Spectrometer.[7] She received the Los Alamos Awards Program recognition three times.[8]

Between 2009 and 2011 she led the Department of Energy funded Modular Advanced Space Environment Instrumentation.[2] That year, she noticed a spike in Tweets about an aurora borealis.[9][10] In 2013 she became New Mexico Consortium-affiliated researcher in 2013, working on instruments that measure plasma in the near-Earth space environment.[11] She has served on scientific review panels for the National Science Foundation and Los Alamos National Laboratory grants.[12] Today MacDonald works in the Goddard Space Flight Center.[13]

In 2018 MacDonald and her team announced the discovery of a new aurora called Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement (STEVE).[14] Steve is further south than has even been seen before.[15] The European Space Agency Swam A satellite was used to identify that the charged particles in STEVE were around 6000 °C.[14] It was first observed by Canadian amateur astronomers in 2015.[16][17] MacDonald attributes the faint purple glow to a subauroral ion drift.[18][19] MacDonald published the finding in Science.[20] She is working with NASA to crowd source sightings of STEVE.[21]

Public engagement[edit]

In 2016 in the journal Space Weather, MacDonald and co-workers reported that "citizen scientists are regularly able to spot auroras farther south of an area where prediction models indicated".[22][23][24] MacDonald leads an interdisciplinary citizen science project called Aurorasaurus, which uses social media to predict the Northern Lights during the current solar maximum.[25][26][27] To fund the program, she won a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation.[8][28][29] The site ( is managed by Liz MacDonald, Don Hampton and Jason Ahrns at theGeophysical Institute.[30]

In 2017 she described the aurora as a glitter bomb on the website Science Friday.[31] In August 2017, she spoke at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site about the 2017 solar eclipse.[32] MacDonald regularly speakers to high school students and community groups.[33][34]


  1. ^ Eveland, Annie Charnley. "Of celestial 'glitter bombs' and scientific research". Union Bulletin. Retrieved 2018-02-15. 
  2. ^ a b "Bio - Dr. ELIZABETH A MACDONALD". Retrieved 2018-02-15. 
  3. ^ "A Physicist Explains The Shimmering Science Behind Auroras - Science Friday". Science Friday. Retrieved 2018-02-15. 
  4. ^ "Elizabeth A. MacDonald, CV, 2012" (PDF). LANL. Retrieved 2018-02-15. 
  5. ^ "archive CSSP Bios Page". Retrieved 2018-02-15. 
  6. ^ "IRIS, ISR-1". Retrieved 2018-02-15. 
  7. ^ MacDonald, E. A.; Funsten, H. O.; Dors, E. E.; Thomsen, M. F.; Janzen, P. H.; Skoug, R. M.; Reeves, G. D.; Steinberg, J. T.; Harper, R. (2009-06-01). "New Magnetospheric Ion Composition Measurement Techniques". 1144: 168–172. Bibcode:2009AIPC.1144..168M. doi:10.1063/1.3169283. 
  8. ^ a b "Elizabeth MacDonald, AGU Elections" (PDF). American Geophysical Union. Retrieved 2018-02-15. 
  9. ^ "The Aurora Hunters Who Spend All Year Chasing the Lights". Atlas Obscura. 2015-09-08. Retrieved 2018-02-15. 
  10. ^ Daley, Jason. "With Breathtaking Pictures, Citizen Scientists Help Map Auroras". Smithsonian. Retrieved 2018-02-15. 
  11. ^ Talus, Carrie. "Dr. MacDonald's Aurora Research Featured | News". Retrieved 2018-02-15. 
  12. ^ "IRIS, ISR-1". Retrieved 2018-02-15. 
  13. ^ "SMD Education :: Profile :: Elizabeth MacDonald". Retrieved 2018-02-15. 
  14. ^ a b "There's a new aurora in subpolar skies. Its name is Steve". Science | AAAS. 2018-03-14. Retrieved 2018-03-15. 
  15. ^ "Meet 'Steve,' the Aurora-Like Mystery Scientists Are Beginning to Unravel". Retrieved 2018-03-15. 
  16. ^ Garner, Rob (2018-03-14). "Mystery of Purple Lights in Sky Solved With Citizen Scientists' Help". NASA. Retrieved 2018-03-15. 
  17. ^ Meyer, Robinson. "Canadian Amateurs Discovered a New Type of Aurora. It's Named Steve". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2018-03-15. 
  18. ^ Mandelbaum, Ryan F. "Citizen Scientists Discover New Feature of the Aurora Borealis". Gizmodo. Retrieved 2018-03-15. 
  19. ^ "Meet 'Steve,' a Totally New Kind of Aurora". 2018-03-14. Retrieved 2018-03-15. 
  20. ^ MacDonald, Elizabeth A.; Donovan, Eric; Nishimura, Yukitoshi; Case, Nathan A.; Gillies, D. Megan; Gallardo-Lacourt, Bea; Archer, William E.; Spanswick, Emma L.; Bourassa, Notanee (2018-03-01). "New science in plain sight: Citizen scientists lead to the discovery of optical structure in the upper atmosphere". Science Advances. 4 (3): eaaq0030. doi:10.1126/sciadv.aaq0030. ISSN 2375-2548. 
  21. ^ Garner, Rob (2018-03-14). "NASA Needs Your Help to Find Steve and Here's How". NASA. Retrieved 2018-03-15. 
  22. ^ "Dr. Liz MacDonald Archives - Weatherboy". Weatherboy. Retrieved 2018-02-15. 
  23. ^ Report, Science World (2016-01-26). "Dr. Liz MacDonald Talks Aurora, Space Weather, And Her Citizen-Science Project, Aurorasaurus [SCIENCE WORLD REPORT EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW]". Science World Report. Retrieved 2018-02-15. 
  24. ^ Garner, Rob (2016-03-07). "Citizen Scientists Help NASA Understand Auroras". NASA. Retrieved 2018-02-15. 
  25. ^ "Aurorasaurus - Reporting Auroras from the Ground Up". Retrieved 2018-02-15. 
  26. ^ Boyer, Jason. "NASA scientists watch eclipse at PARI". WLOS. Retrieved 2018-02-15. 
  27. ^ MacDonald, E. A.; Case, N. A.; Clayton, J. H.; Hall, M. K.; Heavner, M.; Lalone, N.; Patel, K. G.; Tapia, A. (2015-09-01). "Aurorasaurus: A citizen science platform for viewing and reporting the aurora". Space Weather. 13 (9): 2015SW001214. doi:10.1002/2015sw001214. ISSN 1542-7390. 
  28. ^ "Case Study: Aurorasaurus". Crowd Consortium. Retrieved 2018-02-15. 
  29. ^ Depra, Dianne (2016-03-09). "Aurorasaurus: Citizens Share Real-Time Aurora Observations, Help NASA Researchers Better Understand The Phenomenon". Tech Times. Retrieved 2018-02-15. 
  30. ^ "Citizen science meets the aurora | Geophysical Institute". Retrieved 2018-02-15. 
  31. ^ "What Happens When 'The Sun Throws A Glitter Bomb' - Science Friday". Science Friday. Retrieved 2018-02-15. 
  32. ^ "Event (U.S. National Park Service)". Retrieved 2018-02-15. 
  33. ^ Mundhenk, Andrew. "Space physicist details eclipse for Early College students". Hendersonville Times. Retrieved 2018-02-15. 
  34. ^ "Science Experiments for the Public during the Solar Eclipse - SciStarter Blog". SciStarter Blog. 2017-08-16. Retrieved 2018-02-15. 


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