Northern lights research enters final frontier

Jan 12, 2007

An international team of scientists -- including physicists from the University of Calgary -- will begin gathering the most detailed information yet about the ever-changing northern lights, as a multi-year research project enters its ultimate phase with the launch of five NASA satellites from Cape Canaveral next month.

Researchers in the U of C's Institute for Space Research will play a critical role in a five-satellite NASA mission called THEMIS (Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms) which is scheduled for launch at 6:07 pm (Eastern Time) on Feb. 15, just over a month from today.

For their part in the program, the U of C's THEMIS team is operating a network of Ground-Based Observatories (GBOs) across Northern Canada. The THEMIS satellites will probe dynamic processes of astrophysical interest in near-Earth space, while the GBOs will create mosaics of the night sky, capturing changes in the northern lights that are an essential part of the information needed to answer the questions that THEMIS is targeting. The ground and space-based THEMIS observations will enable scientists to pinpoint the cause of brilliant explosions of shimmering light known as "auroral substorms."

"This is a very exciting moment for us because we are expecting to greatly enhance our understanding of these space disturbances that are both beautiful and powerful," said U of C physics professor Dr. Eric Donovan, leader of the Canadian component of THEMIS.

"The next few years are going to be very busy for us and our THEMIS colleagues at NASA and the University of California at Berkeley," Donovan said.

The U of C operates 16 GBOs located in communities across northern Canada (four more in Alaska are operated by Berkeley), which consist of automated all-sky cameras that use time lapse digital imaging and special optics to record auroras in the northern skies. The five satellites are on orbits designed so that they come together in conjunctions over central Canada every four days. During these conjunctions, the cameras will be used to determine the onset of auroral substorms, while instruments on the five satellites will provide measurements of changes in energetic particle populations and the magnetic field in space. The mission will last at least two years, during which time the GBOs will record more than 200 million photographs.

Auroras are caused by the interaction of charged particles from the sun, also known as the solar wind, with the Earth's magnetic field. Auroral substorms are the unpredictable bursts in auroral activity that take place when energy stored in the tail of the magnetic field is released and travel along magnetic lines to the polar regions where they cause spectacular displays of iridescent light. These storms are not fully understood and previous studies have not been able to determine where in the magnetosphere the energy of the solar wind transforms into explosive auroras. Auroral substorms have also been linked to disturbances of telecommunications systems on Earth and damage to satellites.

The NASA-funded THEMIS mission is led by the Space Science Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley, while the Canadian component of the project is funded by the Canadian Space Agency.

In Canada, THEMIS will ultimately involve scientists with from the Universities of Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, and Calgary, Athabasca University, the Canadian Space Agency, and Natural Resources Canada.

Most of the GBOs operate in small communities in the north including Whitehorse, Inuvik, Sanikiluak, and Gillam. The GBOs are run with the generous assistance of community volunteers who help monitor and maintain the equipment.

"Our custodians do a great job of looking after the cameras and playing host to our project in their communities," said THEMIS Canada deployment and site manager Mike Greffen. "They are a critical link in a large and important NASA-CSA mission."

THEMIS project website: sprg.ssl.berkeley.edu/themis

Source: University of Calgary

Explore further: Storms threaten second launch try to space station

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Astronauts to reveal sobering data on asteroid impacts

31 minutes ago

This Earth Day, Tuesday, April 22, three former NASA astronauts will present new evidence that our planet has experienced many more large-scale asteroid impacts over the past decade than previously thought… ...

For resetting circadian rhythms, neural cooperation is key

37 minutes ago

Fruit flies are pretty predictable when it comes to scheduling their days, with peaks of activity at dawn and dusk and rest times in between. Now, researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Cell Reports on April 17th h ...

Hand out money with my mobile? I think I'm ready

41 minutes ago

A service is soon to launch in the UK that will enable us to transfer money to other people using just their name and mobile number. Paym is being hailed as a revolution in banking because you can pay peopl ...

Recommended for you

Ceres and Vesta Converge in Virgo

2 hours ago

Don't let them pass you by. Right now and continuing through July, the biggest and brightest asteroids will be running on nearly parallel tracks in the constellation Virgo and so close together they'll easily ...

A full-spectrum Mars simulation in a box

2 hours ago

There are many reasons why Mars excels at destroying expensive equipment. For one thing, its entire surface is made of partially-magnetized dust. For another, Mars possesses just enough atmosphere so that ...

LADEE mission ends with planned lunar impact

2 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Ground controllers at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., have confirmed that NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft impacted the surface ...

Proposed Mars 'Icebreaker' mission detailed

3 hours ago

Scientists supported by the Astrobiology Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) and Astrobiology Instrument Development Programs (ASTID) have outlined the proposed 'Icebreaker' mission to Mars in a recent ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Continents may be a key feature of Super-Earths

Huge Earth-like planets that have both continents and oceans may be better at harboring extraterrestrial life than those that are water-only worlds. A new study gives hope for the possibility that many super-Earth ...

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

Under some LED bulbs whites aren't 'whiter than white'

For years, companies have been adding whiteners to laundry detergent, paints, plastics, paper and fabrics to make whites look "whiter than white," but now, with a switch away from incandescent and fluorescent lighting, different ...