Next time you look up at the sky from a dark location in central British Columbia, Northern Ontario or Labrador and see the brilliant greens, reds and purples of the aurora borealis, be proud to have a front-row seat. Canada, it turns out, is in the sweet spot for the northern lights and is making the most of it.
Our good fortune is due to the Earth’s magnetic field creating an “auroral oval” that is fortuitously tilted over Canada. In Europe, you would have to journey some 1,500 kilometres farther north for the dramatic view that we have across much of the country.
To take advantage of this geographic quirk, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is a partner in a NASA space science mission called THEMIS. While the source of the auroral luminescence that ripples through the upper atmosphere is well documented — atoms and molecules between 90 and 500 kilometres or more above the Earth are energized by electrons and protons from deep space — the space agencies are working together to answer many other questions. What causes the beautiful shapes in the aurora? What makes it move and get dimmer or brighter?
Researchers also use the aurora as an indicator of the release of electrically charged particles from the sun that can disrupt satellite operations and even land-level power grids.
THEMIS involves observations in space and on the ground. NASA’s five THEMIS satellites supplement information collected by 20 ground-based observatories that are equipped with sensitive all-sky imaging auroral cameras, which snap high-resolution photos of auroral activity every three seconds, or more than 150,000 frames per night. Designed at the universities of Calgary and California, Berkeley and installed at points between Alaska and Happy Valley–Goose Bay, N.L. (and as far south as Pinawa, Man., a two-hour drive east of Winnipeg), the cameras provide a regular flow of what the Canadian THEMIS team leader and University of Calgary space physicist Eric Donovan calls “beautiful data, the kind that everyone in the world wants.”
A worldwide audience can also get its fix of the northern lights over Yellowknife via the internet, thanks to the AuroraMAX initiative. As envisioned by Donovan, Ruth Ann Chicoine, a CSA communications adviser, and James Pugsley, president of Astronomy North, AuroraMAX broadcasts a full-colour feed of the northern lights every night using a camera that is an upgrade on the THEMIS-imager design.
AuroraMax went online in September 2010. In its first year, more than one million people logged on to watch the lights over Canada. The AuroraMAX server even crashed once after a major South American newspaper ran a story on the initiative.
“We’re in a position to have the most important data, and we’ve been innovative about exploiting our geographical advantage,” says Donovan. “The best is yet to come.”