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Leading space research draws new Canadian Space Agency funding

Research at Schulich and Science, into how aurora borealis interferes with GPS signals, among four university projects awarded
January 26, 2016
Susan Skone, associate professor in geomatics engineering (left), and Emma Spanswick, associate director of the Aurora Imaging Group, are both working with the Canadian Space Agency to look at how space weather is interfering with GPS signals. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Susan Skone, associate professor in geomatics engineering (left), and Emma Spanswick, associate director of the Aurora Imaging Group, are both working with the Canadian Space Agency to look at how space weather is interfering with GPS signals. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary 

The University of Calgary has contributed to more than 20 space missions by participating in or leading the launch of critical space-borne instrumentation. Image courtesy of NASA

The University of Calgary has contributed to more than 20 space missions by participating in or leading the launch of critical space-borne instrumentation. Image courtesy of NASA

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 the investment 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 our 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,” says 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.” 

Looking at how occurences like aurora interferes with GPS signals

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 our 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,” explains Spanswick.

While the average commercial-grade GPS user won’t, 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. 

“Our end goal is to be able to use GO Canada data to provide an estimate of the likelihood of GPS signal interference,” says Spanswick.

The benefits of remotely sensing our environment in this way could result in a real-time or predictive warning system based on auroral measurements that would inform the user about whether their positioning information may be compromised due to space weather.

Space weather affects satellites, electrical systems and atmospheric chemistry

The other three University of Calgary projects will be led by Eric Donovan, Christopher Cully and Brian Jackel from the 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 like 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.

Leaders in space science based on partnership and international collaboration

The university's leadership in space science is built on a long-standing partnership with the CSA and with a large network of international collaborators from partner universities, industry, and government agencies including the National Research Council, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Science Foundation and the European, Japanese and Chinese space agencies — leading to 20 major space missions and space technology development projects.

New Earth-Space Technologies is one of the University of Calgary’s strategic research priorities building on decades of national leadership. By bringing together researchers from across disciplines for exploration and discovery in geospatial information and environmental monitoring, the University of Calgary will continue to inform decision and policy-makers while contributing to the development of an important industry sector.

In pushing the frontiers of earth-space research, technology spillover benefits can also be applied to other critical challenges; for example, the space science-medical hybrid NeuroArm that uses the CanadArm robotic arm to perform precision brain surgery. 

Check out this infographic for more information about space weather research at the University of Calgary.