Lights, cameras, action!

Lights, cameras, action!

At Canada's northernmost university, Athabasca researchers are hoping to tame the potentially destructive power of the Northern Lights
November 1, 2004

The aurora borealis or Northern Lights is often described as the world's best light show. Researchers at Athabasca University, however, know this natural wonder has a much more sinister and potentially deadly claim to fame.

Massive power blackouts, navigation failures, disrupted satellites and communications, and more recently, even the spectre of plane crashes, are all testament to the awesome power of the aurora borealis. Despite its dark side and its luminous reputation, the aurora hasn't lost any fans. "There is a huge scientific interest in the aurora," says Martin Connors, Associate Professor at Athabasca University and Director of the Athabasca University Geophysical Observatory (AUGO). Connors is part of an AUGO team that's investigating the science behind the aurora in order to gain a better idea of it's potential power and it's ability to affect earth-bound technology.

Connors describes the AUGO facility 150 kilometres north of Edmonton at North America's northernmost university as a "garage." The unassuming 6-by-10 metre, three-room garage sits isolated from the university on the other side of a forest. The windowless, wood-frame facility is jammed with 20 different experiments, linked to the main campus and the rest of the world through a high-speed fibre-optic network, and protected by a motion-detecting video system. The only unusual visible feature is a one-metre Plexiglas dome under which some of the world's most sophisticated cameras are housed to record celestial events.

The AUGO attracts researchers from the University of Calgary, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), University of California (Berkeley), the Canadian Space Agency, and NASA, among others. What do they have in common? They're all looking to unlock the mysteries of the aurora.

The AUGO facility was completed in February 2004 with the installation of the last piece of CFI-funded equipment, a "multi-spectral" All-Sky camera that allows researchers to photograph the aurora and filter the different light components as part of the upcoming NORSTAR project. A second All-Sky camera is part of NASA's THEMIS mission.

Connors says sub-storms are a huge problem that has been around for 100 years. And after decades of research, he says, we're only fractionally closer to understanding it. He believes that should all change in the next few years, especially with projects like THEMIS and its comprehensive deployment of imaging and monitoring equipment. "In addition to seeing it up close, we'll finally be able to take a picture of the whole phenomenon," says Connors. He hopes having the "big picture" will better prepare the world for the damage that could occur from the aurora.

Most of the time, the aurora provides a pretty spectacular light show. But as Quebec residents learned all too well in March 1989, there are times when it can be catastrophic. That year, the aurora knocked out the entire Hydro Quebec power grid for nine hours and destroyed two transformers on the New Jersey power utility grid. Damage to the grids was estimated at $30 million with overall losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars.


Just as weather experts track hurricanes and predict their landfall, researchers want to be able to predict the onset of powerful auroras so they can safeguard power and navigation systems.

Scientists have known for years that these magnetic clouds can throw off magnetic compasses and wreak havoc on navigation aids and other radio-based and electrical equipment. But one of the more recent threats is to Global Positioning System (GPS) equipment. GPS uses a series of satellites circling the earth to provide accurate location measurements. From hikers to trucking fleets, and car dashboards to global aviation navigation systems, GPS is the defacto standard for finding our way.

Susan Skone, an Associate Professor at the University of Calgary, has been making extensive use of AUGO for her research into the impact of the aurora on GPS systems. One major implementation of GPS is currently underway by aviation authorities. Around the world, the decades-old system of ground beacons and radio navigation aids are being replaced with GPS systems to allow planes to shorten routes and fly in almost any type of weather, saving airlines time and money. GPS is considered accurate to less than 20 metres. Supplementary navigation aids are being deployed that will help airplanes track to within a meter or two of their destination.

"The aurora is known to easily knock a GPS reading out of line by 10 metres or more," says Connors. "If you are out by 10 metres in the air it could be quite serious."

Knowing how to predict the onset of an aurora or magnetic sub-storm would let everyone from pilots to power utilities take precautions and employ alternative measures to overcome the impact.


The genesis of the AUGO was in late 1998 when the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) loaned a sensitive magnetic detector to Athabasca University. Today, UCLA's Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics (IGPP) is one of Athabasca University Geophysical Observatory's (AUGO) research partners. When the CFI provided funds to build the AUGO, UCLA donated the scarce magnetic detector to the facility.

The AUGO also has a strong collaboration with the University of Calgary. One of the All-Sky cameras used to study the aurora comes from the University of Calgary spin-off Keo Scientific Ltd. Keo is a rare case of Canadians acquiring and commercializing U.S. technology, with the prototype camera originally developed by Keo Consultants of Brookline, Massachusetts (now Keo Scientific). In the nine months since Keo Scientific was started, it has delivered specialized optical instruments to countries in Asia, Europe, and North America. Currently, more than 70 Keo cameras are deployed worldwide.

Through the University of Calgary, AUGO has other strong collaborations with the University of California (Berkeley) and the NASA THEMIS project.