July 23, 2019

UCalgary space team gets final green light to proceed with global aurora data project

For the first time, researchers working in joint mission will see days of space weather rather than hours
Aurora over northern Canada
Aurora over northern Canada European Space Agency

After years of planning, researchers at UCalgary have been given the “green light” to work with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) on an UltraViolet Imager (UVI) that will collect data about aurora from SMILE, a satellite orbiting 125,000 kilometres above Earth.

SMILE — Solar wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer — is a joint mission of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) that focuses on the Earth’s magnetosphere and its minute-by-minute response to the solar wind. When the three-year mission launches in 2024, SMILE will be loaded with instruments that are able to record magnetic storms longer and provide new knowledge about the aurora and space weather.  

“The entire project is to look at how solar wind drives space weather,” says Dr. Eric Donovan, PhD, the principal investigator of the ultraviolet imager, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the Faculty of Science, and director of UCalgary’s Auroral Imaging Group. “It’s really exciting because we are going so much further out and our imaging sequences are going to be a lot longer.”

With equipment on other satellites, researchers have been able to capture as many as 10 consecutive hours of space weather. “There are certain events that happen in the magnetosphere that drive dynamic aurora that you can capture in 10 hours but there is a larger space weather event, a magnetic storm, and they unfold over the course of two-plus days,” says Donovan. “With SMILE, we will be able to image complete magnetic storms for the first time.”

The SMILE Mission

The SMILE Mission

European Space Agency

Signing off on SMILE  

SMILE includes dozens of partners from around the world. In 2015, UCalgary was part of the winning team in an international competition to develop a joint mission. Last month the CSA signed off on the final contractual arrangements with Honeywell, to begin design work on the UVI instrument, and with UCalgary to begin design work on the Science Operations and Data Centre (SODC). This was made possible by formalizing the co-funding agreement between the CSA and UCalgary, which received funding from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) in 2017, and the matching funds from the Government of Alberta.

Now, Donovan will work with colleagues at the CSA and international partners to start designing and building the sophisticated imager and the SODC which will be located at UCalgary. “A significant part of work is designing them. We have tons of design work to do. We have 30 people around the world working on UVI, including six to seven people at UCalgary working on the SODC,” he says.

“The SMILE international partnership represents a significant leap forward in our ability to observe and predict space weather,” says Dr. Ed McCauley, president, University of Calgary. “Dr. Donovan’s scholarship in auroral imaging will be a significant asset to the CSA team, as they strive to forecast geomagnetic storms and protect global navigation satellite systems and communications satellites. The University of Calgary has contributed scientific instruments to over 20 space missions, and we are proud to advance our New Earth-Space Technologies strategic research theme with a role in the SMILE mission.”

The other instruments that will be part of the SMILE mission include a wide field Soft X-ray Imager (SXI), in situ equipment that includes a Light Ion Analyser (LIA) to measure ions in the solar wind ion, and a magnetometer (MAG) to measure interplanetary, magnetosheath, and outer magnetospheric magnetic fields. When SMILE is in orbit, it will join a host of other spacecraft actively collecting data on the heliosphere.

“All these different spacecraft are up there already and more are going to look at the global aurora,” says Donovan. “It gives you a window on the whole thing as a system. You take the whole magnetosphere and you project all of that physics down on the ionosphere via the aurora and you get a two-dimensional picture of what’s going on in this three dimensional space. We will see things happening in the aurora that tell us things that are happening in the magnetosphere — and those things are what we call space weather.”

Nate Luit, University of Calgary

The weather in space affects us here on Earth

Understanding space weather is important because it affects both the Earth’s upper atmosphere and countless communications and other crucial systems on the ground. “We’re trying to understand the space environment as best we can,” Donovan says. Once SMILE is in orbit, data will be downloaded from the satellite every few days.

Researchers at UCalgary sent their first imager to space onboard a satellite in 1972 which resulted in the first global images of the aurora. “It was one image per orbit,” says Donovan. “They were beautiful and it was revolutionary.” Since then, UCalgary has participated in more than 20 national and international space missions with instruments that are designed and built either entirely at university or with partners in the space industry in countries around the world.

“Our job this time is a lot more challenging because we are imaging from so much further away. We are going three times as far as our other projects have gone,” says Donovan of the UltraViolet Imager.  “It’s really exciting and the CSA and Calgary are co-leading it.”


New Earth-space technologies are capturing, analyzing and visualizing our Earth-space environment through unprecedented advances in sensors, platforms and systems. We are on the cusp of a technological revolution in our ability to sense and monitor our natural environment and built world — with widespread applications for humanity. From the oldest science (astronomy) to the latest evolution of geomatics, University of Calgary researchers working in the New Earth-Space Technologies Research theme  are providing information that is constantly changing how we make decisions about our world.