SOURCE: University of Calgary

University of Calgary

January 25, 2016 10:00 ET

The University of Calgary's leading space research program draws new round of Canadian Space Agency funding

Aurora Borealis -- more than a pretty light show

CALGARY, AB--(Marketwired - January 25, 2016) - Earth-Space research is deepening our understanding of atmospheric phenomena like the space weather dynamics that create Aurora Borealis. This breath-taking light show belies the epic forces at the heart of space storms that send radiation, solar winds, and magnetic fields into swirling dances around earth -- while disturbing our technologies.

These space weather disturbances are a bigger problem for Canada than for other countries, because of our northerly location. On top of our growing global reliance on space technologies, near-earth space research is becoming increasingly important. With the Canadian Space Agency's investment of $1.4 million for Geospace Observatory Canada (GO Canada) awards, the funding for four University of Calgary research projects will allow researchers to continue to lead in near-Earth research to drive our understanding of these energetic systems.

"This latest CSA support enables University of Calgary researchers, focused on New Earth-Space discovery and development, to continue to lead internationally," says Ed McCauley, Vice-President (Research). "This research is resulting in better sensors and sensor webs for environmental monitoring and Global Navigation Satellite Systems as part of this key research priority."

One of the newly funded projects will be led by Emma Spanswick, a space physicist and Susan Skone, a geomatics engineer in the Schulich School of Engineering, who will push for answers to the million dollar question: 'What is it about the aurora or space weather that is interfering with GPS signals?'

What scientists already know is that the most intense space weather begins with the sun. Solar flares and Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) fling showers of radiation and powerful magnetic fields outward through our solar system. And while most storms miss Earth completely, some hit us. "The ionosphere is a dynamic part of the Earth's upper atmosphere, it's not predictable and is like a dumping ground for high-energy particles coming from the larger space environment," explains Spanswick.

While the average commercial grade GPS user won't, in general, see any impact from space weather, examples of affected applications include surveying, mapping, hydrography, aviation and military operations. Understanding the physical mechanisms affecting GPS systems has the potential to mitigate the effects for high precision systems. "Our end goal is to be able to use GO Canada data to provide an estimate of the likelihood of GPS signal interference," Spanswick adds.

The benefits of remotely sensing our environment in this way could result in a real-time or predictive warning system based on auroral measurements that would inform the user about whether their positioning information may be compromised due to space weather.

The three other University of Calgary space research projects will be led by Eric Donovan, Christopher Cully and Brian Jackel from the Faculty of Science. These projects will also focus on the high-energy electrons and other charged particles that rain down into the upper atmosphere during geomagnetic storms. The space weather effects they are exploring include how satellites are damaged and radio communications disrupted ­ -- with effects on activities like directional drilling for oil and gas. Others include how space weather creates unwanted currents in electrical systems and pipelines -- in-turn causing corrosion. And how space weather influences atmospheric chemistry, where solar particles combine with volcanic emissions, lightning and other human-induced emissions, shaping weather in ways we are working to understand.

The University of Calgary is one of only three Canadian universities to share in the $1.4 million in funding from the Canadian Space Agency -- with four awards going to the University of Calgary, three to the University of Alberta and one to the University of Waterloo.

The University of Calgary's leadership in space science is built on a long-standing partnership with the CSA and with a large network of international collaborators from partner universities, industry, and government agencies including the National Research Council, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Science Foundation and the European, Japanese and Chinese space agencies -- leading to 20 major space missions and space technology development projects.

New Earth-Space Technologies is one of the University of Calgary's strategic research priorities building on decades of national leadership. By bringing together researchers from across disciplines for exploration and discovery in geospatial information and environmental monitoring, the University of Calgary will continue to inform decision and policy-makers while contributing to the development of an important industry sector. In pushing the frontiers of earth-space research, technology spillover benefits can also be applied to other critical challenges, for example, the space science-medical hybrid NeuroArm that uses the CanadArm robotic arm to perform precision brain surgery. 

*Note: Susan Skone and Emma Spanswick will be available for media interviews on Monday, January 25 from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. MST. Please contact Media Relations to schedule an interview.

About the University of Calgary

The University of Calgary is making tremendous progress on its journey to become one of Canada's top five research universities, 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.'

For more information, visit Stay up to date with University of Calgary news headlines on Twitter @UCalgary. For details on faculties and how to reach experts go to our media centre at

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Contact Information

  • Drew Scherban
    Media Relations Advisor
    Strategic Communications
    University of Calgary
    T: 403.210.7752
    C: 403-470-8895