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Mikko Syrjaesuo, Helsinki, Finland

Mikko Syrjaesuo, Helsinki, Finland

The dark skies of Athabasca County make it one of the best places in the world to detect unusual auroras caused by protons from space, and pulsations they cause at Earth’s surface.

10 years work

A decade of work by Japanese colleagues at Athabasca University Geophysical Observatory has led to a recent research article being highlighted by the American Geophysical Union, the major American organization for Earth-related research. Athabasca, situated a bit south of the zone of activity of most “normal” auroras, is in the perfect spot to detect the strange blue light of proton auroras, which must be filtered out from the green hue common to most auroras. Late this year, the Japanese team will lead a new satellite project called ERG, which will “hover” over Athabasca and allow measurements in both space and on the ground, trying to unravel further mysteries of the proton auroras.

Athabasca, situated a bit south of the zone of activity of most “normal” auroras, is in the perfect spot to detect the strange blue light of proton auroras, which must be filtered out from the green hue common to most auroras.”

Most auroras are due to electrons coming in from a magnetic trap on the nightside of the Earth: the so-called magnetotail. These dynamic auroras become more active during “substorms”, when energy from the magnetotail rains down on Earth near the poles. Proton auroras, in contrast, arise in the Van Allen radiation belts, now under investigation by two American satellites, soon to be joined by Japan’s ERG. Protons normally are stable in these belts, but waves can disturb them and send them into the atmosphere a bit further south than where normal auroras are found, and often overhead at Athabasca. The waves have been related to pulsations detected by a Japanese instrument housed on the Athabasca campus for over a decade.

Read the article in Earth & Space Science News

Athabasca University now has two auroral observatories, one on campus, and one in a much darker location in Athabasca County. Both were founded by Martin Connors, Professor of Physics and Space Science, with support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and its provincial counterpart. Dr. Connors’ aurora research at Athabasca began in 1998 with detection of magnetic fields in Athabasca, and has since expanded to encompass detector sites across Canada as well as local facilities.

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