Solar space storms that cause intense radiation are the subject of a new NASA satellite project — and a team of University of Alberta researchers are on board.
The international partnership will see 12 U of A researchers join scientists from NASA and aims to take advantage of the current active phase in the space storm cycle in order to gain information about the radiation environment surrounding the Earth.
Storm cycles take 11 years, and about half of this time sees relatively little or no storm activity, preceded by five or six years of extremely high flare-ups — the result of ions and electrons from explosions on the Sun being flung towards the planets at almost the speed of light.
When the solar material reaches the outer atmosphere and magnetic fields of those planets, the impact often results in radiation.
However, the physics surrounding that radiation is uncertain, since some storms cause it and others have no effect. By monitoring this space weather, the goal is to not only answer questions about this radiation, but to also predict space weather forecasts for safer exploration and more stable satellite communications.
Ian Mann, a professor with the Department of Physics and U of A’s Canada Research Chair in Space Physics, has been with the U of A for almost 10 years, and says he is excited about the new possibilities this project could create.
“Ideally we’d like to understand the system to the point of predictability. There’s other applications too — we’ll be looking to explore the outer reaches of the Solar System in the future,” he said.
“Even just characterizing the environments to a much higher level of fidelity will improve design, but ultimately (will also improve) the reliability of satellites that are serving the needs of our population down here on the surface.”
As the appointed co-investigator of the project for NASA, Mann will look specifically into the instruments that take measurements of electric field disturbances and of the radiation itself.
The satellites were launched into similar orbital paths Aug. 30, and are under a commissioning period for two months to test the equipment before collecting data.
Mann said the design is crucial in order to minimize the potentially catastrophic effects of solar radiation to the satellite equipment. In order to withstand extremely harsh conditions, the spacecraft contains an aluminum outer shield to keep radiation to the inner electronics at a minimum.
“Some of these energetic particles have an impact on on-board memory storage … which can lead to bit flips that can even lead to rogue commands and the spacecraft basically executing things when it’s not been told by the ground to do things,” said Mann.
In an attempt to avoid these affects, aero-detection and correction algorithms are also applied to the onboard hardware systems to ensure the satellite is kept under control.
Another aspect that Mann is looking into is the sustainability of outer space. He noted space exploration and satellite communications are increasingly becoming more commercial and industrial businesses run by private companies rather than just governments.
“There’s lots of things you can do from space in terms of providing commercial services: communications, observations, monitoring of environmental changes, weather systems, land usage — there’s an innumerable amount of applications which can be serviced from space,” said Mann.
He is also involved with the United Nations in this venture of space sustainability. This includes looking for solutions to manage space debris and finding ways to make outer space project opportunities available to all nations.
“We want to be able to utilize space for the benefit of Canadians, the benefit of our technological infrastructure, and to do that as reliably as possible,” he said.
The satellites will collect data for up to two years, with the intention of carrying enough fuel for a third year as part of an extension project.
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