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COUNTDOWN: One week until University of Calgary instrument launched into space

Q&A with Swarm Mission’s David Knudsen, lead scientist, ESA Swarm Canadian Electric Field Instruments
November 15, 2013
University of Calgary scientist Johnathan Burchill and COM DEV Canada technician Kevin Lush prepare a Swarm Electric Field Instrument for testing at the university. Photo by David Knudsen

University of Calgary scientist Johnathan Burchill and COM DEV Canada technician Kevin Lush prepare a Swarm Electric Field Instrument for testing at the university. Photo by David Knudsen

The Swarm mission will measure the magnetic signals from Earth’s core, mantle, crust and oceans, as well as in the ionosphere and magnetosphere surrounding the planet. Photo by European Space Agency

The Swarm mission will measure the magnetic signals from Earth’s core, mantle, crust and oceans, as well as in the ionosphere and magnetosphere surrounding the planet. Photo by European Space Agency

The Swarm mission is set for launch on Friday, Nov. 22, 2013 at 5:02 a.m. MST. In anticipation of the milestone event, we met with the University of Calgary’s lead scientist on the project, Professor David Knudsen from the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Q: What is the overall objective of the Swarm Mission?
A: Swarm's goal is to better understand Earth's magnetic field and its interaction with the solar wind, which results in up to a thousand-billion Watts of electrical power being dumped into the upper atmosphere globally. The mission will last four years. 

Q: How is the University of Calgary involved in the project?
A: For the past ten years, we, in collaboration with industry, have been responsible for the development, testing and calibration of Swarm’s Electric Field Instruments (EFI). The identical EFIs that will fly on each of the three Swarm satellites will measure the density, wind velocity and temperature of the ionosphere at high resolution in order to characterize the electric field around Earth. Swarm will be the first mission to make global, multi-point measurements of magnetic and electric fields simultaneously.

Q: What makes the EFIs unique and why was your team chosen to deliver this technology?
A: Each EFI contains two novel sensors known as Thermal Ion Imagers.  Developed initially at the University of Calgary with support from the Canadian Space Agency, these imagers adapt CCD (charge-coupled device) detector technology – the same technology used in digital cameras - to detect not light, as is usually done, but charged particles.  With this information, we can produce precision measurements of ionospheric winds and temperatures.

In the early 2000s, our team successfully built and flew Thermal Ion Imagers as part of three sub-orbital rocket flights. Because we developed this exclusive expertise, we were selected as the supplier of choice for the ESA’s Swarm mission. The Swarm EFIs were built by COM DEV International based in Ontario.

Q: What is the advantage of flying three identical instruments at once?
A: Imagine the difficulty of trying to put together a picture of, say, a hurricane using only one sensor in one location. Only by using multiple sensors can one hope to see the storm as a massive, spinning vortex. Earth’s ionosphere is a still-larger system with winds that can be as much as a hundred times faster than hurricane-force winds. Swarm’s three satellites will help determine the size and lifetime of electric current systems in the ionosphere. 

Q: What is the research potential for the data that will be collected by your instruments?
A: The science phase of the mission will begin three months after launch. The key research themes we hope to explore involve the transfer of energy from the solar wind into our upper atmosphere (a trillion Watts!); understanding the heating of the ionosphere (to hundreds of thousands of degrees), and loss of our atmosphere to outer space (up to 100 tons per day).  Swarm will also map global ionospheric wind patterns in response to changes in the solar wind, tell us about the fundamental behavior of waves and turbulence in plasma (the "4th state of matter"), and provide new insight into space weather and its effects on technological systems.

Q: What’s been your motivation in this project?
A: My own personal interest is in understanding how the northern lights are formed.  Contrary to what we often hear or read, the aurora is not simply the result of solar wind particles hitting the upper atmosphere.  Instead, the interaction of the solar wind with earth’s magnetic field generates huge electric currents that flow through the upper atmosphere.  The aurora is the visible manifestation of these currents.  However, key questions remain, such as how the electrons in the aurora gain such surprisingly large energies: thousands of time the energy of electrons in the solar wind.  With Swarm’s magnetic and electric field instruments we will have a new view of the auroral circuit.  Understanding the aurora will in turn help us understand how charged particles are accelerated to high energies throughout the universe. 

Watch a video on Swarm and the University of Calgary’s involvement.