Calgary, AB – Space research is deepening our understanding of atmospheric phenomena like the space weather dynamics that create aurora borealis. This breathtaking light show belies the epic forces at the heart of space storms that send radiation, solar winds, and magnetic fields into swirling dances around earth — while disturbing our technologies.
These space weather disturbances are a bigger problem for Canada than for other countries, because of our northerly location. On top of our growing global reliance on space technologies, near-earth space research is becoming increasingly important.
With funding of $1.4 million for Geospace Observatory Canada (GO Canada) awards from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the funding for four University of Calgary research projects will allow researchers to continue to lead in near-Earth research to drive understanding of these energetic systems.
“This latest CSA support enables University of Calgary researchers, focused on New Earth-Space discovery and development, to continue to lead internationally,” said Ed McCauley, vice-president (research). “This research is resulting in better sensors and sensor webs for environmental monitoring and Global Navigation Satellite Systems as part of this key research priority.”
One of the newly funded projects will be led by Emma Spanswick, a space physicist and Susan Skone, a geomatics engineer in the Schulich School of Engineering, who will push for answers to the million-dollar question: ‘What is it about the aurora or space weather that is interfering with GPS signals?’
What scientists already know is that the most intense space weather begins with the sun. Solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) fling showers of radiation and powerful magnetic fields outward through the solar system. And while most storms miss Earth completely, some hit us.
“The ionosphere is a dynamic part of the Earth’s upper atmosphere, it’s not predictable and is like a dumping ground for high-energy particles coming from the larger space environment,” said Spanswick.
While the average commercial-grade GPS user will not, in general, see any impact from space weather, examples of affected applications include surveying, mapping, hydrography, aviation and military operations. Understanding the physical mechanisms affecting GPS systems has the potential to mitigate the effects for high precision systems.
The other three University of Calgary projects will be led by Eric Donovan, Christopher Cully and Brian Jackel from the university’s faculty of science. These projects will also focus on the high-energy electrons and other charged particles that rain down into the upper atmosphere during geomagnetic storms.
The space weather effects they are exploring include how satellites are damaged and radio communications disrupted — with effects on activities such as directional drilling for oil and gas. Others include how space weather creates unwanted currents in electrical systems and pipelines, in turn causing corrosion. And, how space weather influences atmospheric chemistry, where solar particles combine with volcanic emissions, lightning and other human-induced emissions, shaping weather in ways we are working to understand.
The University of Calgary is one of only three Canadian universities to share in the $1.4 million in funding from the CSA — with four awards going to the University of Calgary, three to the University of Alberta and one to the University of Waterloo.