University of Calgary

University of Calgary

November 22, 2013 10:20 ET

University of Calgary technology part of European Space Agency mission launched in space

Three new satellites include innovative technology developed by the University of Calgary.

CALGARY, ALBERTA--(Marketwired - Nov. 22, 2013) - The Swarm mission, led by the European Space Agency (ESA), successfully launched this morning aboard the Russian space vehicle Rokot/Briz-KM at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome located in Arkhangelsk Oblast, about 800 km north of Moscow. Communication with the satellite was successfully established shortly after the launch.

"After ten years of instrument development and testing, it's very rewarding and exciting for our research team to reach this important milestone," says Professor David Knudsen, lead scientist for the ESA Swarm Canadian Electric Field Instruments.

"We can now shift our focus to the stimulating phase of data collection and space exploration," adds the researcher who was at the Swarm Mission Operations Centre (MOC) at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC), in Darmstadt, Germany at the time of the launch.

The Swarm mission, which consists of a constellation of three satellites orbiting in two different near-polar orbits at 450 and 530 km altitude, is intent on providing the best-ever survey of the Earth's geomagnetic and its temporal evolution.

Data gathered will allow for new insights into the Earth and its surroundings by improving understanding of our planet's interior, near-Earth space environment and the sun's influence on the planet. Swarm will be the first mission to make global, multi-point measurements of magnetic and electric fields simultaneously.

Beginning in 2004, University of Calgary scientists along with collaborators in Canadian industry were commissioned by the European Space Agency to develop Swarm's Electric Field Instruments (EFI) as part of a $16 million contract. The Canadian Space Agency contributed an additional $2 million to support testing, calibration and software development at the University of Calgary.

The three Swarm satellites include identical EFIs. Built by Ontario-based COM DEV Canada, the instruments are set to measure the density, velocity and temperature of the ionosphere at high resolution in order to characterize the electric field around Earth.

"The EFIs on Swarm contain two novel sensors known as Thermal Ion Imagers," explains Knudsen. "These imagers adapt CCD detector technology - the same technology used in digital cameras - to detect not light, as is usually done, but charged particles. With this information, we can produce precision measurements of ionospheric winds and temperatures."

In the 90s, the Canadian Space Agency provided support to the University of Calgary for conducting ionospheric research which enabled the testing of an early thermal ion imager design onboard suborbital rockets. As a result of the dedication and hard work of the scientists who worked on the project, the technology at the centre of the Canadian Electric Field Instrument (EFI) evolved to an advanced stage.

The result of that work enabled the selection of this Canadian instrument by ESA. Many years later, the Canadian EFI is now ready to take a leap into space and support the very demanding requirements of the Swarm mission.

"Thanks to the preliminary research we did in the late 90's and early 2000's, we were able to develop exclusive expertise," states Knudsen. "This explains why we were selected as the supplier of choice for the ESA's Swarm mission for its EFIs."

The science phase of the mission will begin three months after launch. The key research themes Knudsen and his team hope to explore include the transfer of energy from the solar wind into our upper atmosphere, understanding the heating of the ionosphere and analyzing the gradual loss of our atmosphere to outer space.

Swarm will also map global ionospheric wind patterns in response to changes in the solar wind, tell us about the fundamental behavior of waves and turbulence in plasma, and provide new insight into space weather and its effects on technological systems.

"The solar wind contributes up to a trillion Watts of energy into our atmosphere and generates temperatures of hundreds of thousands of degrees," explains Knudsen. "As a consequence, our atmosphere releases up to 100 tons of material back into space each day. Furthering our understanding of these phenomena will help us to understand aspects of the evolution of the atmosphere on Earth as well as on other planets. For example, Mars may have lost a significant part of its atmosphere due to this process. "

As well as furthering science, the measurements delivered by the three Swarm satellites will be valuable for a range of applications. Data will be put to practical use to help improve the accuracy of navigation systems including those systems carried on satellites and to improve the efficiency of drilling for natural resources.

Scientists hope to collect data from Swarm for at least four years at which time its orbit is expected to decay and the satellite will re-enter Earth's atmosphere.

Footage of the satellite launch is available at:

The Swarm mission marks the University of Calgary's involvement in a second space launch in three months. This past September, University of Calgary researchers were involved in the CASSIOPE mission launch. That satellite has a total of eight scientific instruments collecting new data on space storms and associated plasma outflows in the upper atmosphere. Department of Physics and Astronomy scientists led the development of the Enhanced Polar Outflow Probe (e-POP) part of CASSIOPE.

Media Availability

  • Professor Knudsen is currently in Germany to participate in the launch activities with the ESA. Interviews with Professor David Knudsen can be coordinated by request.
  • Johnathan Burchill, Swarm's EFI scientist and lead software developer will be in Calgary on Friday for in-person media requests.

About the University of Calgary

The University of Calgary is a leading Canadian university located in the nation's most enterprising city. The university has a clear strategic direction to become one of Canada's top five research universities by 2016, where research and innovative teaching go hand in hand, and where we fully engage the communities we both serve and lead. This strategy is called Eyes High, inspired by the university's Gaelic motto, which translates as 'I will lift up my eyes.'

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Contact Information

  • Media Contact: University of Calgary
    Marie-Helene Thibeault
    Director, Marketing and Communications
    Faculty of Science
    Cell: 403.679-8447