Thursday, February 19, 2015

An Overview of Canada's Leading Role in Space Weather Research

          By Glen Strom

In real estate, it's all about location, location, location. Space weather research works the same way. Canada takes a leading role in this research because of our position under the northern auroral oval, a region around the northern geomagnetic pole.

A sample measurement, taken on November 9th, 2013, of the northern auroral oval, a region of heightened atmospheric activity centered around the North magnetic pole. The variations in the northern atmosphere, and its interaction with solar storms, often generate atmospheric disturbances and visible auroras (the Aurora Borealis, or "Northern Lights"), which provide scientists with an opportunity to study space weather and solar disturbances. Graphic c/o NOAA

Predicting solar disturbances accurately is critical. These disturbances can damage satellites, spacecraft, communications, and power grids.

Canada's proximity to the northern magnetic pole gives us a front-row seat for studying space weather, but it also makes us vulnerable. We got an unpleasant taste of how vulnerable we were during the massive Hydro-Quebec blackout in 1989. As outlined in the March 13th, 2009 NASA website article, "The Day the Sun Brought Darkness,"the entire province went dark for 12 hours.

For the most part, our space weather research involves five Canadian universities working in partnership with Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), and the National Research Council (NRC). Other universities and industry players contribute as well.

An overview of the effects of space weather conditions on terrestrial facilities. As outlined in the Autumn 2014 Canadian Military Journal article, "Space Weather, Situational Assessment and It's Effects upon a Joint Interagency Domestic and Arctic Environment," these effects  can impair satellite hardware and solar cells, de-orbit satellites, disrupt radio transmission and GPS signals and even render entire power and communication networks inoperative. Graphic c/o Space Weather Canada/Natural Resources Canada. 

The various projects come together in the Canadian Geospace Monitoring Program (CGSM). The participants use a variety of specialized tools to monitor and study space weather.

The data collected by CGSM is available to scientists through the Canadian Space Science Data Portal (CSSDP). Cybera, an Alberta-based, not-for-profit technical agency acts as the project lead.

DRAO John A. Galt telescope. Photo c/o NRC.
As described by the CSSDP website, “The CSSDP project provides space scientists with access to a wide range of space data, observations, and investigative tools. It provides a seamless, single point of access to these resources through a custom web portal. To date, more than 350 scientists are registered users of the CSSDP portal.”

Components of the CGSM are maintained and administered through a variety of institutions. These include:
  • The Cawston, BC based Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory (DRAO) where NRC, through the world renown Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics (NRC-HIA), has operated an automated solar radio flux monitor, focused on collecting 10.7 cm data widely used for “space weather” applications to measure the effects of solar activities on communication technologies, since 1960. Other DRAO facilities include the John A. Galt Telescope, a 25.6 m, prime-focus, equatorial-mounted, single-antenna telescope and the Synthesis Telescope, which offers wide-field imaging and atomic hydrogen (HI) spectroscopy, which makes it particularly useful for studies of the interstellar medium and nearby galaxies.
CGSM instrument configuration as per 2009. Graphic c/o  CGSM.
    • U of C also leads the science component of the Enhanced Polar Outflow Probe (e-POP), one of the experiments on board the CAScade, Smallsat and IOnospheric Polar Explore (CASSIOPE) satellite.  The eight scientific instruments making up e-POP collect data on space storms and plasma flow to help scientists understand solar weather and plan measures to mitigate its deleterious effects.
  • The University of New Brunswick (U of NB), which uses high-frequency radars called ionosondes to study the different layers in the ionosphere, a region about 60 km to 600 km above Earth as part of its contribution to the Canadian High High Arctic Ionospheric Network (CHAIN). U of NB also uses GPS receivers to observe signals from navigational satellites. These devices help researchers understand how ionization interferes with radio communications and navigation.
SuperDARN radar locations in the northern and southern hemisphere. The field-of-view of each active radar is coloured in grey. Graphic c/o Virginia Tech SuperDARN group.
  • The University of Waterloo (U of W), which, along with the U of A, runs computer modelling and simulations from CGSM data to develop accurate space weather forecasts.
In addition to the work done through CGSM, NRCan operates the Canadian Space Weather Forecast Centre (CSWFC) in Ottawa, which is part of Space Weather Canada. The organization monitors and researches space weather in co-operation with other government agencies, academia, and industry.

CSWFC also develops forecasts and monitors the effects of geomagnetic storms on power systems, pipelines, satellites, HF communication, and GPS navigation. It shares data with the CSA, the International Space Environment Service (ISES) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

As well as working with NRCan to improve techniques for predicting space weather, the CSA provides a large part of the funding for many of the space weather projects.

Of course, this article is not a comprehensive listing of all space weather research in Canada. Covering the subject in detail would require a much longer article. What should be clear, though, is that Canada plays a key leadership role in space weather research.

Glen Strom.
We provide expertise, funding, data ... and location, location, location.

Glen Strom is a freelance writer and editor with a background in business and technical writing. He's also the editor of The Gazette Weekly, the newsletter of the Canadian Space Society.

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