Chasing the Northern Lights

“We’ve found that the average Canadian is very interested in the Aurora”


An international team of scientists will try to figure out, once and for all, what it is that makes the northern sky light up with those strange, flowing bands of coloured light that scientists call “aurora borealis,” and that Inuit call “aqsarniit.”

To that end, they’re installing a set of special cameras across northern Canada and Alaska to take timed pictures of the northern lights, to be compared with data on changes to the Earth’s magnetic field that occur when the northern lights flare up.

It’s a part of a larger research effort aimed at finding a way to predict disturbances to the Earth’s magnetic field that cause disruptions to the flow of satellite data.

The project is led by NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, and researchers from the University of Calgary, and the Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses of the University of California.

“We’ve found that the average Canadian is very interested in the Aurora,” said Dr. Eric Donovan, a professor at the University of Calgary’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, when asked about the value of the study.

Dr. Vassilis Angelopoulous, a research physicist at the University of California’s Space Sciences Laboratory, said knowledge produced by the project, called “Themis,” after the Greek god “of good counsel,” will help the U.S., Canada, and other countries protect space-based “assets,” especially communications satellites.

Satellites now act as conduits for many forms of vital data: long-distance telephone service, television, Internet and GPS locator information, all vulnerable to magnetic storms caused by solar activity.

With the help of U.S. consulate offices in Calgary and Quebec City, researchers explained the project via another satellite-driven service: high-speed videoconferencing.

At a session this past Monday, researchers based in Calgary and California explained the project to groups located in Iqaluit, Yellowknife and Whitehorse.

Donovan’s group in Calgary is responsible for finding places in northern Canada to house the special equipment that will be used to photograph the northern lights. So far, Rankin Inlet is the only location in Nunavut that they’ve chosen so far. The project will be up and running by 2006.

For many years, Iqaluit has hosted a magnetometer used by the Geological Survey of Canada to track the movement of the north magnetic pole. This summer, it’s being moved from a location behind the power plant to accomodate the creation of the new Plateau subdivision.

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