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University-led research team receives funding to study space storms

Deploying high-altitude balloons will strengthen knowledge of high-energy particles from space storms
May 22, 2014

Christopher Cully from the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the Faculty of Science holds the main electronics board for the ground-based VLF radio receiver that will be used in the project. It also serves as the basis for the balloon-borne radio receiver.

A University of Calgary-led research team has received $250,000 from the Canadian Space Agency to develop a novel flight instrument to study the high-energy particles that rain down into the upper atmosphere over Canada.

Assistant professor Christopher Cully in the Faculty of Science will lead a team of researchers from the University of Calgary, University of Washington and Dartmouth College to develop a novel in-flight experiment. The results will clarify the dynamics of the harsh radiation environment through which satellites travel, and why the high-energy particles that make up that radiation rain collide with the upper atmosphere.

“We know that the radiation environment changes rapidly and dramatically, but there is a gap in our knowledge about exactly why the high-energy particles sometimes disappear from the radiation belts: Do they mostly rain down into the atmosphere, are they released into the solar wind, or do they lose their energy and become low-energy particles? What drives that process?” says Cully, a Canada Research Chair who works in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

This funding will also offer opportunities for graduate students to acquire hands-on experience in designing, building, testing, and flying scientific instruments and technologies on high-altitude balloons, sounding rockets or nanosatellites and analyzing the resulting data.

Monitoring high-energy particles with balloons

The Earth is surrounded by two doughnut-shaped belts called the Van Allen radiation belts, which are populated by very high-energy particles trapped by Earth’s magnetic field. The belts extend down to the surface in two ovals, with one centred on the magnetic North Pole and crossing Canada, Russia and Scandinavia, and one centred on the magnetic South Pole and crossing Antarctica.

In order to better understand how these particles can be monitored from the ground, Cully and his team will launch three high-altitude stratospheric balloons in 2016. The balloons will carry detectors to observe X-rays from the upper atmosphere, a tell-tale sign of precipitating high-energy electrons. Simultaneously, Very Low Frequency (VLF) radio receivers both on the balloon and deployed in an array across the Prairie provinces will observe the electromagnetic waves that cause the particle precipitation.

“Canada’s geographic position, combined with ground-based instruments supported by the CSA and other agencies, affords us the opportunity to take a lead in understanding energetic electron precipitation, both in terms of its effects on the radiation belts and also its effect on the atmosphere over Canada,” says Cully.

University of Calgary: Leader in space research

The project will build the University of Calgary’s capacity in balloon missions, increase the amount of hands-on flight hardware experience offered to trainees, develop new instruments for ground-based space-weather observations, and improve our ability to use these ground-based instruments to remotely sense space.

“The University of Calgary has world-class space heritage, both in terms of space missions and sounding rockets, and ground-based space physics observations,” says Eric Donovan, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and co-chair for the New Earth-Space Technologies (NEST) research theme at the University of Calgary. “Balloons are an attractive low-cost platform that can connect the research and technology development in these two areas, creating a pathway for ground-based research to reach space,” he adds.

NEST cuts across faculties and disciplines, integrating research strengths to create new technologies for improving global communication networks and environmental monitoring. It builds on decades of national leadership that includes more than 20 space missions, a record unmatched by any other Canadian university.

“This project characterizes our strategic research plan in action,” says Frank Maurer, associate vice-president (research). “Investment in near-earth space research is vital to technology development, and is a key component of our New Earth-Space Technologies research theme.”