March 14, 2024

UCalgary space researchers to create most extensive ground-based sensor network in the world

Emma Spanswick and team of UCalgary researchers receive Canada Foundation for Innovation grant for groundbreaking project
A woman works on a machine
Emma Spanswick works on a calibration system used to characterize the radiometric response of highly sensitive narrow-band optical imaging systems. Josiah Taundi

Our space environment is vast and under sampled. The way it’s studied now is equivalent to studying the world’s oceans with only a few buoys. 

Now, a team of UCalgary researchers are going to build and operate the most extensive, comprehensive and powerful ground-based sensor network in the world to be used for space environment research. The Geospace Dynamics Constellation-Ground (GDC-G) sensor network will remote-sense the space environment to study different aspects of the ionosphere-thermosphere — where our atmosphere meets space. 

This groundbreaking initiative will enable UCalgary to address cutting-edge research questions, foster national and international partnerships and advance Canada as a global space research leader.

“For decades, UCalgary has been a powerhouse for design of ground-based instrumentation and using instrumentation to remote-sense the space environment,” says Dr. Emma Spanswick, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the principal investigator for the GDC-G project. 

“We’ve taken all of our knowledge, experience and wisdom from the last decades working in this field and are putting it towards GDC-G. This really is the next leap: building a larger sensor system than you could even imagine.” 

GDC-G — which just received a CFI Innovation Fund grant for the project — is a partnership between Spanswick, Dr. Eric Donovan, PhD, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the Faculty of Science, Dr. Susan Skone, PhD, a professor in the Department of Geomatics Engineering in the Schulich School of Engineering and associate vice-president (research), and Dr. Ian Mann, PhD, a professor at the University of Alberta’s science faculty.

A history grounded in pushing the boundaries

UCalgary has a long and impressive history when it comes to designing, building and operating ground-based instrumentation to study the aurora and space weather. Take the Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms (THEMIS) mission — which launched in 2007— for example. THEMIS comprised a constellation of five satellites that studied energy releases from Earth's magnetosphere known as substorms.

Led by Donovan and in partnership with the University of Alberta and the University of California, Berkeley, THEMIS All-Sky Imager (ASI) includes 16 ground-based auroral cameras and magnetometers in northern Canada. During the two-year mission, the cameras took pictures every three seconds, for a total of 140 million pictures.

“It was a huge deal for Canada to get a leadership role in the ground component of a major NASA mission,” says Spanswick. “That was the first time anybody had tried to operate so many observatories across such a large region and to synchronize the data.”

The data from the instruments are still being used today by hundreds of scientists from around the world. Yet, the technology is 15 years old and will inevitably break down sometime in the future. Spanswick and her team grew concerned about the scientific community that relies on the data, so they decided to act.

“We sat down, a group of us — Eric, Susan, Ian and I — and we put our heads together. We thought about what we had learned over the last decade or so, and what would be the next step if we’re looking forward to the future of large NASA missions and other future opportunities for Canada.” 

The group ended up with a proposal for GDC-G, a ground-based sensor network to complement NASA’s Geospace Dynamics Constellation mission, which will allow for breakthroughs in the fundamental understanding of the processes that govern the dynamics of the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

When the group asked NASA if it would support the proposal, the space agency’s answer was simple: Yes.

“We’ve been pushing in this direction, very effectively, for a very long time, and this is just a complete levelling up of that capacity. And now here we are, facing the reality of putting out a larger set of instruments than we’ve ever thought of, all in one network,” says Spanswick. 

“This is a healthy stretch on our technical capacity and we know we will need innovation along the way, but we’ve done it before and we know we can do it again.”

A group of people work on a machine

Emma Spanswick, alongside students Shaakira Gadiwan and Josh Houghton, works on a calibration system used to characterize the radiometric response of highly sensitive narrow-band optical imaging systems that will be used in the GDC-G project.

Josiah Taundi

The importance of ground-based instruments

When we think of breakthroughs in space research, we often think of satellites as the vehicle to get there, but ground-based instrumentation plays a critical role in advancing this field of science.

Ground-based measurements are capable of imaging the region sampled by the spacecraft, they help untangle temporal changes from spatial ones, and provide large-scale information about ionospheric processes and regions. Even from a purely financial standpoint, ground-based instruments provide immense value.

Donovan explains that the University of Calgary researchers have been “masters” at finding projects that Canada, with a relatively small space budget, can afford to do that enhance the value of larger projects that other countries can carry out.

“Everybody in the geospace research world knows we have been behind THEMIS-ASI. Hundreds and hundreds of people use this data. Now we’re doing it again with GDC-G,” he says.

GDC-G includes seven types of instruments, everything from true colour auroral cameras — which will then be used to stitch together an image of the aurora over the entire Canadian land mass and into Alaska — to magnetometers for magnetic field measurements. 

“We’re going to end up with this huge sensor web that’s all co-ordinated and providing data into the centralized data system from which we can essentially image the ionosphere across various axis,” says Spanswick. “It’s one massive puzzle, and each of these instruments bring a piece of it.”

The instruments, many of them which will be designed and built here at UCalgary, will operate from 27 sites across northern Canada and Alaska, stretching across a region from Labrador City, N.L. to Toolik Lake, Alaska.

End-to-end solution

Spanswick is fascinated with studying the ionosphere because it’s a relatively new science, and because what happens in this region can tell you a lot about what is happening further out in space.

“For example, if the aurora was very quiet, and then all of the sudden erupted into dynamic displays, that’s telling you that something happened nearly a hundred thousand kilometres away,” says Spanswick.

As well as studying the pure science of space, GDC-G is focused on studying and mitigating the impacts space weather has on technological systems we rely on every day.

Skone, who is leading this aspect of the project, explains that space weather, and changes in distribution of charged particles, can affect everything from communications, navigation like GPS, radar systems and polar flight paths.

“First, we need to observe and better investigate the space weather phenomena and the physics processes that are driving them. From resolving that, we can generate key parameters that define the impact on our national critical infrastructure and services, such as communications, navigation, remote sensing and surveillance systems,” says Skone.

One application GDC-G will support is Canada’s modernized long-range surveillance systems, which uses radar that can be affected by space weather.

Skone stresses that because this project leverages UCalgary software and hardware, the university will be able to provide an “end-to-end" solution. 

“We control the instruments, we control the operating modes, we control the data streaming and we have the best data-driven modelling approaches,” says Skone. “We’ll be able to provide uniquely tailored data products and real-time space environment characterization for end users.” 

It’s going to be epic

Spanswick is involved in almost every aspect of launching a ground-based sensor network project, from the idea, to writing the proposals to designing, building and operating the instruments. It really is Spanswick and her team’s passion, hard work and innovation that has made UCalgary such a powerhouse in this field.

As for how she is feeling about launching the extensive GDC-G network?

“I’m excited to go through the development cycle, to build these new systems. Part of my brain is an engineer's brain and knowing that we have this opportunity to really level up the technology is fantastic. The science part of my brain gets all excited about the new information we’re going to be able to tease out of these new instruments and where that will take the science. And then the manager part of me is just scared of the sheer logistics of running instrumentation out of 27 remote locations across Canada and into Alaska,” she says, laughing.

In simpler words?

“It’s going to be epic.”

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