This work investigates the three-dimensional, spatio-temporal flow development in the aft portion of a laminar separation bubble. The bubble is forming on a flat plate geometry, subjected to an adverse pressure gradient, featuring maximum reverse flow of approximately 2 % of the local free-stream velocity. Time-resolved velocity measurements are performed by means of planar and tomographic particle image velocimetry, in the vicinity of the reattachment region. The measurements are complemented with a numerical solution of the boundary layer equations in the upstream field. The combined numerical and measured boundary layer is used as a baseline flow for linear stability theory analysis. The results provide insight into the dynamics of dominant coherent structures that form in the separated shear layer and deform along the span. Stability analysis shows that the flow becomes unstable upstream of separation, where both normal and oblique modes undergo amplification. While the shear layer roll up is linked to the amplification of the fundamental normal mode, the oblique modes at angles lower than approximately
are also amplified substantially at the fundamental frequency. A model based on the stability analysis and experimental measurements is employed to demonstrate that the spanwise deformations of rollers are produced due to a superposition of normal and oblique instability modes initiating upstream of separation. The degree of the initial spanwise deformations is shown to depend on the relative amplitude of the dominant normal and oblique waves. This is confirmed by forcing the normal mode through a controlled impulsive perturbation introduced by a spanwise invariant dielectric-barrier-discharge plasma actuator, resulting in the formation of spanwise coherent vortices. The findings elucidate the link between important features in the bubble shedding dynamics and stability characteristics and provide further clarification on the differences in the development of coherent structures seen in recent experiments. Moreover, the results present a handle on the development of effective control strategies that can be used to either promote or suppress shedding in separation bubbles, which is of interest for system performance improvement and control of aeroacoustic emissions in relevant applications.