Beware the aurora: How AU is heading off the dangerous effects of aurora borealis

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Aurora borealis, commonly known as northern lights, are a major area of research for the Athabasca University Geophysical Observatory (AUGO).

Aurora borealis, commonly known as northern lights, are a major area of research for the Athabasca University Geophysical Observatory (AUGO).

The aurora borealis that glow and flicker across the northern Canadian sky are beautiful, intriguing… and potentially destructive.

It turns out that this “space weather” can affect GPS navigation and even knock out power grids. In 1989, the Hydro-Québec power grid was taken down completely by a space weather event.

To get a better handle on how and where auroras are generated, and to prevent them from doing harm to infrastructure like power grids, the Athabasca University Geophysical Observatory (AUGO) is expanding a network of magnetometers with a $400,000 grant from the Canadian Space Agency.

Auroras, magnetometers and space weather warnings

So what are magnetometers? “Magnetometers measure the strength and direction of magnetic fields,” explains Dr. Martin Connors, the AU professor and former Canada Research Chair in Space Science, Instrumentation and Networking who’s leading the project.

“Auroras cause changes to the Earth’s magnetic field, and in Canada we’re particularly affected by this because of our proximity to the magnetic pole. By measuring the magnetic field above Canada with great precision, the magnetometers are helping us do things like provide richer data to the space weather centre at Natural Resources Canada.” In turn, the centre is able to dispatch better space weather warnings to operators of vulnerable infrastructure, who then adjust their operations accordingly.

“For example, a prospecting company will simply wait out magnetic field unrest,” Connors says. “Satellite operators also value the warnings and will change satellite operations to make them less vulnerable.”

The research team: AUGO, NASA and UCLA

The magnetometer network is part of a long-running collaboration between AUGO, NASA and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), on a project called THEMIS (Time History of Events and Macroscopic Interactions during Substorms).

NASA launched the project in 2007, creating a constellation of satellites that still operate today, along with a ground-based measurement network that includes AUGO. The magnetometer network is a project within THEMIS known formally as AUTUMN (Athabasca University THEMIS UCLA Magnetometer Network).

Capturing both ends of the magnetic field above Canada

The CSA grant is enabling AUTUMN to expand its network across eastern Canada, which until now had far fewer magnetometers than western Canada. The idea, Connors says, is to gather detailed data on both ends of the magnetic field above Canada rather than just one end.

“Recent satellite studies have pointed out just how different the northern and southern hemispheres are in their auroras, and this new approach will help us to understand why,” he says.

CSA awarded the grant to AUTUMN in December 2013. Since then, the AUTUMN team has nailed down 10 sites for the new magnetometers, all of which are in Quebec, and built the support equipment to run them.

“While the number of magnetic instruments around the world has steadily expanded, there’s been a big gap in Quebec,” Connors says. “We’re excited to finally fill that gap.”

And he’s excited to have more tools for investigating the many mysteries that still exist around auroras. “There has been serious scientific study of the aurora for about 100 years,” he says, “but what we don’t know still far outweighs what we do know.”

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