NASA camera to focus on northern lights

Clint Sawicki has an unusual job. He is the guardian of a NASA camera mounted upon a telephone pole in his front yard.

Clint Sawicki has an unusual job.

He is the guardian of a NASA camera mounted upon a telephone pole in his front yard.

The camera, with its fish-eye lens, takes pictures of the entire night sky, every three seconds, every night.

Its mission: to photograph the northern lights in all their glory, 25 kilometres away from the city.

The photography is part of NASA’s Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms project by which the northern lights will be studied by ground-based observatories like the one in Sawicki’s yard and five outer-space satellites.

These will be launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on February 15.

Sawicki, who during the day is co-ordinator of Yukon College’s Northern Research Institute, spends his nights making sure the camera and its equipment is in working order.

“It’s incredible, I mean we’ve always thought that we have amazing northern lights out our way and there’s not much other light around … so we get some pretty amazing views,” said Sawicki.

“It’s exciting to be out there and to be able to see it in general and then to know that it’s going to scientific research.”

The camera is connected to a computer in a shed on his property.

The whole set-up is one of 16 such observatories in northern Canada.

The data collected from the cameras are sent via the internet to the University of Calgary’s site manager of the ground-based observatories, Mike Greffen.

Greffen’s job was to scout out places for these cameras to be installed and other Canadian Space Agency funded scientists at the University of Calgary go through the camera data looking specifically for something called an auroral substorm, which Greffen describes as quite a phenomena.

“The purpose of the THEMIS mission is to explain what causes an auroral substorm, which is an event where there is a massive release of energy,” said Greffen.

 “If you were standing outside watching an auroral substorm you’d see the aurora doing its usual thing with nice curtains and everything, and they come pretty far south and then within the span of a minute they would blast back north and the entire sky would be lit up — it’s incredible, it’s an incredibly beautiful phenomena.”

The information gathered by the satellites and ground cameras will be the most detailed information yet about the ever-changing northern lights.

The THEMIS satellites will probe near-Earth space, while the GBOs will create mosaics of the night sky, capturing changes in the northern lights that are an essential component of information needed to answer questions about the substorms.

The ground and space-based observations will enable Canadian and American scientists to pinpoint the cause of the brilliant explosions of shimmering light.

“This is a very exciting moment for us because we are expecting to greatly enhance our understanding of these space disturbances that are both beautiful and powerful,” said University of Calgary physics professor Eric Donovan, leader of the Canadian Space Agency-funded component of THEMIS.

The five satellites are in orbit that brings them into conjunctions over central Canada every four days.

During these conjunctions the cameras will be used to determine the onset of the substorms, while instruments on the five satellites will provide measurements of changes in the magnetic field in space.

The THEMIS mission will last two years during which time the GBOs will record more than 200 million photographs.

Auroras are caused by the interaction of charged particles from the sun, also known as the solar wind, with the Earth’s magnetic field.

Auroral substorms are unpredictable bursts in auroral activity that take place when energy stored in the tail of the magnetic field is released and travels along magnetic lines to the polar regions where they cause spectacular displays of iridescent light.

These storms are not fully understood and previous studies have not been able to determine where the energy of the solar wind transforms into explosive auroras.

Auroral substorms have been linked to disturbances of telecommunications systems on Earth and damage to satellites.