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2013 in review: A Space Odyssey

University's space exploration programs in the spotlight this year
December 20, 2013

In his first public speaking event after leaving the International Space Station, astronaut Chris Hadfield visits campus in July.

CASSIOPE luanched in September by SpaceX on its Falcon 9 in California; scientists, led by the University of Calgary, are using the satellite to collect new data and details on space storms. Photo courtesy SpaceX

It was a year to celebrate Canada’s accomplishments in space with astronaut Chris Hadfield spending the first half of 2013 aboard the International Space Station and the Bank of Canada closing the year by unveiling a new $5 bill that prominently features Canadarm 2, Dextre and an astronaut.

The University of Calgary has a long tradition of space research and had its share of space action in 2013 as well including, as highlighted below, three space mission launches, Col. Hadfield’s July visit to campus, and the creation of a task force to lead the New Earth-Space Technologies strategic research theme.

NEOSSat: Tracking asteroids and comets

On Feb. 22, NEOSSat (Near Earth Object Surveillance Satellite) was launched, marking a new era of space research for the University of Calgary.  

Orbiting 800 kilometres above the Earth, the suitcase-sized NEOSSat is designed to study asteroids orbiting between Earth and the sun. Led by Alan Hildebrand from the Department of Geoscience, a team of researchers is studying those asteroids as well as the orbiting comets. 

Featuring a 15-centimetre Maksutov telescope fitted with a specially designed baffle, NEOSSat can block most stray sunlight and take hundreds of sensitive images every 24 hours. These asteroids rarely if ever make it into the night sky, so are a difficult target for conventional ground-based survey telescopes.

Campus visit of a national hero

On July 7, the University of Calgary hosted Col. Chris Hadfield for his first public presentation since leaving the International Space Station.

An enthusiastic crowd of 650 guests from the campus and community packed the Energy, Environment Experiential Learning building for a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with Hadfield who shared breathtaking photos and remarkable accounts of his adventures in space.

In addition to Col. Hadfield’s captivating presentation and entertaining Q&A session, event guests also had the chance to meet university researchers involved in space technologies from the Faculties of Arts, Science and Medicine, as well as the Schulich School of Engineering. As part of the event, the university also featured its Rothney Astrophysical Observatory which is home to some of Canada’s most sophisticated astrophysical equipment and hosts thousands of school children annually for educational programming.

CASSIOPE: Monitoring space weather

The CASSIOPE (the CAscade SmallSat and IOnospheric Polar Explorer) space mission took flight on Sept.  30 aboard a SpaceX rocket launched from Vandenberg, California. CASSIOPE is a multi-purpose mission to conduct space environment research and advanced telecommunications technology demonstration. 

Onboard the satellite are eight science instruments that collectively form the scientific payload including e-POP, an innovative scientific payload part of the Canadian Space Agency's science program and involving contributions from 10 Canadian universities and research organizations including the University of Calgary. The instruments include an ion detector, an electron detector and a fast-auroral imager for capturing images of the aurora borealis (known as the Northern Lights in the North Hemisphere).

At the time of launch, the University of Calgary’s Greg Enno, technical manager for the project, said: “This is both exciting and a huge relief to see CASSIOPE launched after over nine years of preparation and development. The team has been waiting for this moment for a long time and is eager to get to dig into the data.”

Swarm: Mapping the Earth’s magnetic and electric fields

University of Calgary researchers were involved in a third successful launch on Nov. 22 as part of the European Space Agency’s Swarm mission.

Launched aboard the Russian space vehicle Rokot/Briz-KM at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome located about 800 km north of Moscow, the constellation of three identical Swarm satellites orbit at an altitude of 450 and 530 kms and will provide the best-ever survey of the Earth's geomagnetic and its temporal evolution. This is the first-ever 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). The EFIs measure the density, velocity and temperature of the ionosphere at high resolution in order to characterize the electric field around Earth.

The University of Calgary’s researchers pioneered the development of the initial EFIs in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“After 10 years of instrument development and testing, it’s very rewarding and exciting for our research team to reach this important milestone,” said the University of Calgary’s Professor David Knudsen, lead scientist for the ESA Swarm Canadian Electric Field Instruments.

The data gathered over the course of the next four years will allow researchers to gain 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.

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.

New Earth-Space Technologies Strategic research theme committee formed

The 2013 calendar year closed with the announcement of a university New Earth-Space Technologies (NEST) strategic research theme committee. The research theme is set to drive national and international excellence in sensors and sensor webs, remote sensing, navigation, space science, and geospatial modeling.

Leading the NEST leadership committee will be professors Eric Donovan of the Faculty of Science and Susan Skone of the Schulich School of Engineering. Their first order of business will be to hold a workshop in early 2014 highlighting excellence in Earth-space research at the University of Calgary.