Technology & Science

Scientists probe northern lights from all angles

University of Calgary project will use Canadian cameras and U.S. satellites to probe the northern lights from above and below. Project aims to understand why the displays occur and predict where and when they will happen to minimize damage to satellites, power transmission.

Canadian and U.S. scientists are preparing to study the northern lights from above and below. They aim to predict the displays that can disrupt satellites and power transmission.

The University of Calgary's Themis project includes a cross-Canada array of cameras pointed up to catch a glimpse of the colourful spectacle.

Many details of northern lights are poorly understood, such as what causes the eruptions in space or when and where the lights will appear.

Scientists do know the process starts when solar flares and energy are cast off into space. Earth's magnetic field deflects most of the energy, but some is whipped back toward the planet as an electromagnetic storm. The northern lights are a byproduct

"Every once in a while we get these explosions," said Brian Jackl of the University of Calgary. "These large amounts of energy being dumped into places in a hurry."

To figure out how and why the storms are triggered, scientists will use images from Canadian cameras on the ground, NASA satellites in space, and data from the Canadian Space Agency.

"Right now, the art of predicting storms in space is at about the same level as the art of predicting hurricanes was maybe a century ago," said John Manuel of the Canadian Space Agency in Longueuil, Que.

Predicting the storms is becoming more important because the electromagnetic activity can interfere with modern technology. In 1989, an electromagnetic storm knocked out power throughout much of Quebec.

"Learning more about the northern lights really helps us with our modern society, protecting us from these solar storms and their results on the atmosphere," said astronomer Alan Dyer.

The project aims to be up by next year.