Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Northern lights to be examined like never before

On a clear night in the northwest, one of natures more spectacular shows can be seen in all its colourful glory. But for scientists there’s nothing like a close up to try and bring understanding to just what makes the Aurora Borealis so bright.

With five NASA satellites in the air and a number of ground based tracking stations receiving the data, taking some 200 million photographs of the natural phenomenon

Leanne Ritchie of the Daily News received some cross Canada coverage to her story on the project that is set for launch in February. The story appeared in Monday’s Daily News.

By Leanne Ritchie
The Daily News
Monday, January 15, 2007
Pages one and three

A team of scientists from the University of Calgary is helping unlock the mysteries of one of nature’s great spectacles, the northern lights.

Northern lights, otherwise known as aurora borealis, can be seen over the Canadian north on cold clear winter nights, but their exact cause remains a mystery to scientists.

“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 Dr. Eric Donovan, a University of Calgary physics professor and leader of the Canadian Space Agency-funded component of the project.

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

Researchers in the University of Calgary’s Institute for Space Research will play a critical role in a five satellite NASA mission which is scheduled for launch at 6:07 pm (Eastern Time) on Feb. 15.

For their part in the program, Calgary’s team is operating a network of 16 ground-based observatories across Northern Canada. An additional four observatories are operated in Alaska by the University of Berkley.

The satellites will probe dynamic processes of astrophysical interest in near-Earth space, while the ground-based observatories will create mosaics of the night sky, capturing changes in the northern lights that are an essential part o ft the information needed to answer the questions that project is targeting. The ground- and space-based observations will enable scientists to pinpoint the cause of brilliant explosions of shimmering light known as “auroral substorms.”

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

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 tin aurural 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.

However, 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 ground-based observatories, which are operated mostly by volunteers in small communities, 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 they come together over central Canada every four days. During the meetings, 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 observatories will record more than 200 million photographs.

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