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Calgary researchers play key role in expanded space weather monitoring program


Calgary, AB – The University of Calgary has a network of specialized digital cameras that record the northern lights above Canada each night. The network will now be used to enhance understanding of potentially dangerous bursts of radiation from the sun as part of a new nation-wide research project looking at space weather.

The Canadian Space Agency recently announced $6.5 million in funding for the Canadian GeoSpace Monitoring (CGSM) Program, including 10 new research contracts, three of which operated by the University of Calgary, that will collect and process a flood of information that will allow scientists to investigate the complex interactions between the high-energy particles that blow from the sun and the Earth’s protective magnetosphere. Observing how the sun and Earth interact will help forecast space weather, which can affect satellite-based communications, GPS navigation and the health of astronauts in space.

The expanded CGSM program will see a network of special cameras and radiation monitors operated by the University of Calgary in communities across northern Canada to collect vast amounts of data about the aurora borealis for the program. Department of physics and astronomy professor Eric Donovan will oversee an array of all-sky imagers to record photographs of the aurora every few seconds at several wavelengths, as well as an array of riometers that will observe cosmic background radiation, which is disturbed by auroras and can provide clues to the strength of auroral activity. His colleague Brian Jackel will operate a set of meridian scanning photometers that will precisely measure the intensity and characteristics of light coming from the aurora.

“The different program elements of CGSM come together to give us a comprehensive view of physical processes in space,” said Dr Donovan, a leading aurora researcher. “Calgary’s role in this exciting science initiative centers on imaging the aurora, so we have the added advantage of producing data that is both scientifically important and visually stunning”

The Canadian GeoSpace Monitoring (CGSM) program is a national effort to observe and understand the Sun and its effects on our environment. It is the direct successor to the 1980’s CANOPUS program and builds on its world-class heritage. The 2003-2007 phase of the CGSM program was characterized by major deployments of new instrumentation and the hardware and software infrastructure required to manage the resulting data. Administered by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), CGSM will continue to install, integrate and operate a Canada-wide network of ground-based instruments for remote-sensing the magnetosphereionosphere system lying beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. The Canadian community of solar-terrestrial scientists will probe the geospace environment with an unprecedented resolution in a concerted attempt to answer fundamental questions about the space environment and its effects on the environment and human activity

The multi-million dollar network includes ground-based observatories, as well as modeling and forecasting centers that allow the study of the Sun, the Earth, and the interplanetary space between the two. CGSM is a CSA-led nation-wide program that partners with two government agencies (National Research council, and Natural Resources Canada) and five universities (the universities of Alberta, Calgary, Saskatchewan, Waterloo, and New Brunswick). The expanded CGSM program includes more than 80 scientists from institutions across Canada and around the world.

When completed in the next five years, CGSM will include a suite of instruments spread across the country from the west to east coast, including the far north, as well as centres for modelling and space weather forecasting:

– All-sky imagers are digital cameras that will take pictures every few seconds at several wavelengths of light, in effect, observing the colours of the aurora. These colours tell us about the nature of the charged particles from the Sun and magnetosphere colliding with atoms in the upper atmosphere. (University of Calgary)

– Meridian scanning photometers will measure the intensity of light at several wavelengths. These devices precisely measure the characteristics of the light coming from the aurora. (University of Calgary)

– Riometers will observe the cosmic background radiation at radio wavelengths. This radiation is disrupted by auroras, so these instruments provide an indirect measure of the strength of auroral activity. (University of Calgary)

– Digital ionosondes will send out bursts of radio energy high into the atmosphere. The reflections will provide information on the state of the ionosphere. (University of New Brunswick)

– Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers will measure disruptions in the signals transmitted from GPS satellites in orbit. The disruptions are due to disturbances in the ionosphere. (University of New Brunswick)

– SuperDARN/PolarDARN radars will send out bursts of radio energy and measure the reflections from the active regions of the aurora. Combining the data from the ionosonde and SuperDARN/PolarDARN instruments will provide greater insight into activity within the ionosphere and the auroras. (University of Saskatchewan)

– Fluxgate magnetometers will measure the strength of disturbances to the Earth’s magnetic field with great precision. Monitoring magnetic field strength on Earth can reveal important information about the state of the electrical currents high in the atmosphere. (University of Alberta)

– Induction coil magnetometers will be able to detect very fast variations in the Earth’s magnetic field, caused by disturbances in geospace. (University of Alberta)

– Solar telescope will monitor radio waves emitted by the Sun. Variations in the intensity of these radio waves are correlated with sunspots, relatively dark areas on the Sun associated with intense magnetic activity. (National Research Council)

– Numerical models will use data collected by the instruments to improve our understanding of the space environment. (University of Alberta) 3

– Forecast models will predict the conditions in space and on Earth using data from the instruments. (Natural Resources Canada, University of Alberta, University of Waterloo).