The aurora borealis draws tourists from across the globe to see the phenomenon once feared and revered but now understood to be connected to substorms in the Earth's magnetic field. ((Bill Rockwell/Canadian Press))

Canadian scientists said they have been able to trace a solar substorm behind the northern lights back to its origin in space, a development that could provide a new tool in predicting space weather.

University of Alberta physicists Jonathan Rae and Ian Mann and a team of researchers used data obtained from five space satellites and several ground stations to pinpoint the epicentre of a solar substorm and revealed their findings Monday at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Toronto.

Solar substorms are energy releases resulting from the complex relationship between the Earth's magnetic field and the stream of high-speed ionized particles coming from the sun, called the solar wind. In addition to being related to the aurora borealis, they also have the potential to damage communications satellites and disable spacecraft, making a study of their origins important to government and industry.

To investigate the storms, the Canadian Space Agency and NASA teamed up on the THEMIS mission, launching five satellites in 2007 at various positions in the magnetosphere in conjunction with ground stations across Canada and Alaska to track the process.

Last year Mann and his colleagues published a report in the journal Science suggesting the substorms began far away from Earth at the tail of the planet's magnetosphere. As energy from the solar wind builds up in this tail it stretches it out farther and farther out until, stretched to its limit, the magnetic field snaps back like an elastic band, converting the built-up energy into kinetic and heat energy that returns to the Earth.

The latest research used information from sensors on the ground and in space to track the disturbances in the atmosphere when the magnetic wave strikes and from that data, piece together the storm's point of origin some hundreds of thousands of kilometres above the Earth.

They hope this knowledge will allow them to accurately predict substorms before they arrive, a process  they likened to seismology in its use of vibrations to track earthquakes.

"What we have is a proof of concept," said Mann in an interview with CBC News. "We've demonstrated this capability and created a new tool we hope will help us finally figure out and characterize what's happening out in space."

The THEMIS satellites will continue to follow the substorms for another three years, said Mann, and that information should help them get closer to tracking space weather more accurately.

THEMIS, which stands for Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms, is a NASA funded mission with scientists from Canada, the United States and Europe involved in the research.