Understanding our planet through aurora

People have always been intrigued by the majesty of the Aurora Borealis. In recent time, however, scientists have come to understand that observing auroras can yield more than spectacular visual experiences. Aurora studies will help us model and predict space weather, understand the Earth’s magnetosphere, and inspire experiments with plasma physics. To that end, scientists at the University of Calgary in Canada are collecting data as part of the AuroraX project.

Also known as the northern lights (or southern lights in the southern hemisphere), auroras are caused by fluctuations in the Sun’s activity.

When activity is high, the solar wind becomes stronger, which leads to disturbances in the Earth’s magnetosphere. Energy will be released from the “tail” of the magnetosphere and injected into the high latitude ionosphere. While beautiful to watch from the ground, the phenomena may endanger astronauts and space tourists. Additionally, these events can pose a threat to the satellites that our modern society is highly dependent on for communication, Earth observation, and more.

40,000 real-time streams

Accurate predictions of “space weather” are therefore of large and increasing importance. Furthermore, understanding the Aurora Borealis allows us to comprehend seemingly unrelated subjects, like the formation and evolution of ocean currents, how pollution moves around the planet, and even the behaviour of bees who use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate.

Through its location and vast territory, Canada is in a unique position to spearhead aurora studies. Previously, such studies were hindered by the lack of digital infrastructure able to acquire and transmit data from very remote Northern locations to scientists’ servers.

Fortunately, the AuroraX project is able to benefit from the rapid technological evolution over recent decades.

In 1998, a single camera installed by the University of Calgary in Gillam, Manitoba, took a low-resolution picture of the Aurora Borealis once a minute. Today, AuroraX collects data from dozens of cameras and sensors in a variety of dark sky locations across the Canadian North, with more than 40,000 real-time data streams.

Supporting global research

The value of the AuroraX observations are augmented by the input from instruments that are installed on satellites and spacecrafts by the University of Calgary and other institutions.

The massive dataset routinely transfers terabytes of information and is the largest user of network traffic on the University of Calgary campus. Scientists rely on Canada’s National Research and Education Network (NREN) and on its provincial partner in Alberta, Cybera, to efficiently transfer such large data. Twelve provincial and territorial partners, and CANARIE, form Canada’s NREN. Together, they connect Canada’s researchers, educators, and innovators to each other and to data, technology, and colleagues around the world.

The AuroraX data are made available to hundreds of researchers from academic institutions across Canada, as well as scientists at the Canadian Space Agency, NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Chinese Academy of Science, among many others.

Published: 10/2020

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