New Brunswick·Science

UNB scientists expand network to track space weather

New Brunswick researchers have returned from the high Arctic after installing gear that will allow them to explore high into the atmosphere.

Charged particles from sun affect cell phone signals, navigation systems, commercial plane routes

New Brunswick researchers have returned from the Arctic frontier after installing gear that will allow them to explore high into the atmosphere.

The excursion successfully expanded the Canadian High Arctic Ionosphere Network. CHAIN is a space weather monitoring grid that maps radiation blooms coming from the sun and solar winds. That space weather impacts everything from cell phone signals, navigation systems to commercial plane routes on Earth.

Space physicist P.T. Jayachandran of the University of New Brunswick leads the research group that recently returned from the Arctic after installing additional equipment to monitor space weather. (Shane Fowler)
“We installed eight more GPS systems to the network,” says project head and space physicist P.T. Jayachandran. “So currently we have 18 up and running.”

Those 18 stations monitor the ionosphere, a region 90 kilometres above the Earth's surface. It is there that particles charged by the sun start to bombard the planet. At times that interaction is visible as the Northern lights. But its weather has big implications because of today's reliance on technology.

Cell-phones, flight paths, and air-traffic are all things that suffer when that space weather turns nasty.

“We process all that data here UNB,” says Jayachandran, a physics professor at the University of New Brunswick whose research focuses on solar wind, the magnetosphere and the ionosphere  “With it we can build a map in real time. That gets sent out all over the world.

“Airlines that use circumpolar routes use it to map their routes over the Arctic,” says Jayachandran. “These routes are economical to operate and route diversion due to space weather events will add additional cost to their operation."

Because Earth's electromagnetic field offers little or no protection from radiation above its poles, it is there that electronic communication and signalling systems on aircraft are most vulnerable to inclement space weather. As air traffic increases, and the North continues to develop, a mapped forecast of that weather becomes increasingly valuable.

The recent expansion is just the latest in an effort to bolster the network to a total of 25 stations by next summer.

“By expanding to 25 we have increased the spacial and temporal resolution of the data we collect,” says Jayachandran. “That means we can precisely pinpoint where the action is.”

But the CHAIN network isn’t stopping there. As the network grows, so does the resolution of the mapping. Just as with everyday weather forecasts there is a growing market for this information, so another 20 stations are slated to be built even after next year's expansion.

“That means we can basically look at things which we haven't looked at before so that we can understand this phenomenon at the fundamental level.”

Once CHAIN grows to 45 Arctic outposts, Jayachandran hopes that researchers will start to be able to build somewhat predictive forecasts, although he admits it is difficult when this type of weather is generated 150 million miles away in the centre of the solar system.

“It's tough, but we're getting there,” says Jayachandran.