Congratulations to UCalgary’s space weather researchers

I was delighted to read UCalgary’s announcement about new funding for space research. As part of the Canadian Space Agency’s Geospace Observatory Canada initiative, $1.4M has been granted to three universities, including the University of Calgary, for research into space weather.

Weather in space! Who knew?  There are, of course, no visible clouds or blizzards in space. When scientists use the term ‘space weather’, they are not referring to atmospheric conditions driven by regional pressure and temperature differences. Rather, they are referring to invisible torrents of ionized particles (aka solar wind) and giant eruptions of electromagnetic energy (aka Coronal Mass Ejections) that periodically stream outwards from our Sun and potentially disrupt systems on Earth.

NASA and ESA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory spacecraft captured this image of an especially powerful solar flare as it erupted from the sun early on Nov 4, 2003.

NASA and ESA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory spacecraft captured this image of an especially powerful solar flare as it erupted from the sun early on Nov 4, 2003.

Just as a hurricane can create societal mayhem, space weather can dramatically disrupt the affairs of people and organizations. I had an interesting personal encounter with space weather during my first night in space aboard the shuttle Columbia. Shortly after I went to bed, I was startled to see star bursts every few minutes in my eyes. I had never experienced anything like that before. Fearing that my retina was detaching and that our mission would have to be aborted, I reported my concerns to shuttle commander Tom Henricks. Tom laughed and reassured me that the flashes and bursts I was seeing were simply activation of the cells in my retina by incoming radiation particles. My eyeballs were functioning like dosimeters and visually recording the higher flux of radiation that is present above the Earth’s surface! The flashes in my eyes recurred every night thereafter as I drifted off to sleep but I soon learned to ignore them.

Besides being a curious bedtime phenomenon, ionizing radiation can impact the health of astronauts. As it shoots through our bodies, high-energy particles can cause damage to DNA and cell matrices. Following long-term exposure, radiation can cause cataracts in our eyes, mutations in our reproductive organs and cancer. I am examined every year to medically monitor whether any of these nasty things might happen to me. In the event of violent solar storms, ISS spacewalks will be postponed and astronauts will take shelter in the shielded aft end of the Station where there is a bit more protection against radiation.

Space weather can also have disruptive effects on electronic circuits.  As an ionized particle penetrates into the core of a memory register of a microprocessor, it can convert a binary 0 into a binary 1 (and vice versa). Astronauts call these random reversals ‘bit flips’.

Computers aboard the ISS control every system and device. If a ‘bit flip’ occurs, the output data from a computer becomes corrupted and could cause a malfunction in the Station system (e.g. electric power, attitude control) that it controls. Or the computer could completely crash requiring a reboot by Mission Control or the onboard crew.

NOAA and NASA are constantly monitoring the Sun and will give the Space Station crew a heads-up when solar activity is increased. Solar storms are a good time to view the aurora. ISS astronauts Scott Kelly and Tim Peake recently shared a series of beautiful auroral photographs on Twitter.

The dancing lights of the aurora seen from the ISS on January 20, 2016 as the Station passed over the Pacific Northwest

The dancing lights of the aurora seen from the ISS on January 20, 2016 as the Station passed over the Pacific Northwest

Away from the protective cover of Earth’s atmosphere, interplanetary space is characterized by even higher fluxes of radiation. Before sending crews on long, distant missions to Mars or beyond, we critically need to learn how to better shield astronauts and electronics from radiation.

The research teams that were awarded the funding grants in today’s announcement are being specifically asked by the CSA to investigate the space weather processes that generate unwanted effects on ground-based systems. In an increasingly technological world where almost everyone relies on electronic equipment, space weather is a serious matter. Practically every type of electronic equipment is at risk. Solar flares can disrupt signal transmissions from satellites. Coronal mass ejections can induce electrical fluctuations on the ground that can blow out transformers. For instance, a solar blast from the sun hit the power grid in Quebec in 1989 leaving millions of people without power for nine hours.

It’s not enough to simply learn how space weather affects the upper atmosphere. Our university researchers are also being tasked to develop ways to increase the resilience of infrastructure (power distribution networks, global positioning systems, radio communications, pipelines, cell phones, pagers, precision clocks) to space weather. Canada’s ground and space infrastructure is particularly vulnerable to space weather because of our nation’s proximity to the magnetic pole. Increasing resilience to space weather will be critical to our nation’s future security and economic well-being.

So … congratulations to our space weather researchers on the awarding of your research grants. You make us proud. Oh … did I mention that four of the eight grants went to University of Calgary research teams? Woohoo! The University of Calgary can certainly claim that atmospheric science is one of our niche areas of research excellence. So renowned and remarkable are our teams that they are sought out to enhance missions such as the European Space Agency’s SWARM magnetic field study and to lead the Canadian Space Agency’s CASSIOPE enhanced Polar Outflow Probe consortia.

While our university has consistently performed world-class research, it also has a track record for developing the intellectual resources needed to advance Canada’s space program. Former students and faculty like Alan Clark, Leroy Cogger, Dave Kendall, Alan Hildebrand, David Knudsen, Andrew Yau, Elizabeth Cannon, Doug Hamilton, Laura Lucier, Natalie Panek and many many others possess the expertise, mindset and reputation to continually push back the space frontiers. And our current researchers including Emma Spanswick, Susan Skone, Eric Donovan, Christopher Cully and Brian Jackel have now taken on the space weather challenge … not surprising for a university that embraces research excellence and that is located in a city with a pioneering spirit.

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