May 27, 2019

Project opens a treasure trove of aurora borealis data to the world

Funding helps build AuroraX website for anyone, anywhere to discover data

For decades, researchers at the University of Calgary have been collecting data about aurora borealis — space weather created by solar winds in the Earth’s magnetic field. Now, with funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), the province of Alberta and the Danish Technical University (DTU), researchers are building AuroraX, a sophisticated web-enabled platform that will let anyone — from a school kid to a computer scientist — access a vast amount of data about the aurora. 

“We have all these projects that make all this wonderful data. It’s very visual, rich and complex and it’s heterogeneous: it has all these different data sets,” says Eric Donovan, co-director of the Auroral Imaging Group and professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the Faculty of Science. “We spent a lot of time, effort and money producing this data and we have some pretty cool tools that we’ve developed for giving people access to it.”

Working with Cybera, the University of Alberta, and DTU, the researchers will build a website with “deep links” to data collected in dozens of research projects. “AuroraX  has a number of different components but right at the core of it is to take this massive beautiful data set that we have and make it much more usable for people all over the world,” says Donovan. “The idea is to create something that will knock peoples’ socks off and secure our place as the world leader of providing access to this data.”

The information comes from projects including

  • TREx, a vast network of instruments across western Canada recording optical and radio data
  • NASA’s THEMIS satellite mission studying sub-storms in the aurora and auroral arcs in the ionosphere, and
  • European Space Agency’s SWARM satellite mission measuring the Earth’s magnetic field.
“Science students to space physicists will use our data to do everything from space weather research to learning what’s going on with remote sensing in the magnetosphere to looking at the effects of the aurora on the atmosphere and what causes the aurora,” says Eric Donovan.

“Science students to space physicists will use our data," says Eric Donovan.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

When the SMILE mission launches in the next few years, an ultraviolet imager will capture 40-hour sequences of consecutive global images of aurora. Donovan hopes that eventually, AuroraX will also link to  radar, satellite and other types of data that also informs research into the Northern Lights.

“Science students to space physicists will use our data to do everything from space weather research to learning what’s going on with remote sensing in the magnetosphere to looking at the effects of the aurora on the atmosphere and what causes the aurora,” says Donovan. “Then there will be computer scientists who would be interested in working on data bases, pattern recognition and visualization.”

When AuroraX goes live in about three years, there will be public outreach campaigns and programming for schools. Donovan expects that visual artists will also be interested in accessing the data from the “edge of space.” The aurora borealis — magnificent lights dancing in the night sky — have, after all, inspired artists for centuries. “The data that we collect is very abstract. It’s beautiful but it’s abstract representations of the aurora,” says Donovan.

The world-leading space physicist is also moved when he looks up from the data on the screen to the live show in the sky. “When I go out and see it it’s fundamentally different and I just enjoy it. I find it impossible to look at the aurora and think about my work.”

CFI funding was also recently awarded to Dr. Maribeth Murray, PhD, director of the Arctic Institute of North America, and the multi-institutional team of scientists and Inuit partners she’s co-ordinating through the Canadian Consortium for Arctic Data Interoperability (CCADI). The Arctic research data infrastructure project they have developed.