The aurora borealis barometer

Cloudy with a chance of magnetic interference: A new imager at the University of Calgary will deepen our understanding of space weather
Julie Stauffer
University of Calgary
Space Science
A swirl of green light in the sky over a sparsely treed landscape

Most of us focus on weather in the atmosphere — the rain, snow and cloudy skies we see outside our windows. The University of Calgary’s Eric Donovan focuses on the magnetosphere. “This is our cosmic shore. This is where space meets the Earth,” he says.

Here, electrically charged solar winds colliding with our planet’s magnetic fields can wreak havoc on everything from radio communication to the directional drilling equipment used by oil companies.

The interaction of the solar wind and earth’s magnetic field also creates the aurora borealis: a phenomenon Donovan believes can serve as an effective barometer of space weather.

With funding from CFI, Donovan and his team are developing the first-ever ultraviolet imager capable of capturing 36 hours of consecutive images of the entire aurora, even on the day-lit side of the Earth. “These will be the longest sequences of global images of the aurora in the history of our field,” says Donovan.

The sophisticated, Canadian-made camera will take those images aboard a new satellite dubbed SMILE — Solar wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer. Slated for launch in 2021 or 2022, the spacecraft is a joint European Space Agency and Chinese Academy of Science mission. “I love the international nature of it,” says Donovan. “It’s a real partnership.”

The satellite will also collect measurements of the solar wind and Earth’s magnetic field, which can be correlated with Donovan’s images. Using that rich mine of data, scientists from around the world will be able to better understand how watching the aurora can help us predict space weather.