Aurora Research

Still Figuring Things Out Fifty Years Later

Friday (2006…) signalled the first sunspot of the sun’s latest eleven year cycle or as scientists have creatively dubbed it ‘Solar Cycle 24’. What this means is that for the next five or six years, solar storms and sunspots will generally increase on the sun. Solar storms shoot cosmic rays that take about three days to reach the Earth and smash into our magnetic field. The energy created by these collisions creates aurora borealis (and australis, for our southern readers).

This is good news for Churchillians because we like Aurora Borealis and while we have still had some pretty awesome northern lights this year, the best and brightest are yet to come. My first two winters in Churchill (2002 and 2003) were peak seasons, and pretty packed with northern lights (ah, the good ol’ pre-nervous breakdown days… insert wistful sigh).

This new solar cycle also brings a new era of Auroral research. NASA’s THEMIS (Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms) project is a series of five identical micro-satellites launched about one year ago. They are equipped to measure ‘ions, electrons and electromagnetic radiation’ (oh my!). The project, complemented by ground cameras, involves scientists from US, Canada, Western Europe, Russia and Japan. Weather stations, including Churchill, will be launching research balloons throughout the month of April as part of this project.

Over the past year, THEMIS has measured the development of substorms, one of which held the same energy as a 5.5 magnitude earthquake.

The THEMIS team discovered that Aurora travelled twice as fast as previously thought possible and over much greater distances, covering fifteen degrees of longitude in less than one minute. In fact, the storm itself covered 400 miles in one minute.

All of this energy travels to earth along ‘magnetic ropes’ connecting our upper atmosphere to the sun. These ropes are large, some about as wide as Earth, and short-lived, forming in the magnetosphere, about 70,000 kilometres above us, for only a few minutes. They are basically strands of magnetic fields twisted together. It is along these ropes, as they form and ‘unravel’, that the solar wind is able to travel from the sun to the earth, eventually creating Aurora.

This February, THEMIS satellites will be positioned along the sun-Earth axis and hope to observe the origin of solar substorms.

So, this is a whole new era of auroral research, 3D mapping of the aurora but it was only fifty years ago when we knew very little about the causes of northern lights. And, of course, this is where Churchill comes into the picture.

The first scientific expedition to film and study aurora came to Churchill in 1937, backed by the Carnegie Institute of Washington. They launched balloons with recording equipment hoping to achieve a height of 100,000 feet.

Ten years later, the American army launched the first Nike-Cajun rocket in Churchill. By 1954, the Canadian Army fired their first rockets and three years later, the Churchill Rocket Research Range was constructed as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY). Almost 100 rockets launched throughout IGY including the first research rocket to pierce the ‘F-Zone’, a region 120 miles above the ground. The first Canadian scientific payload launched November 8, 1958. The range was closed soo after but then reopened less than a year later. It was in that year that the first Canadian-designed and built (in Winnipeg) Black Brant rocket came into use.

Basically, the military was studying the upper atmosphere and aurora as part of the weapons race. So while Russia’s 1947 claims that the United States was testing V-bombs in Churchill was met with derision there was some element of truth to it. Aurora affects radio transmissions and in the coming cold war era of long range missiles, the military needed to be sure that their guided missiles and radar would work if and when they were needed!

Over the years, a wide range of studies were undertaken, mostly carried on Nike-Cajun, the Aerobee or Black
Brant sounding rockets or weather balloons.

In 1959, Project Skyhook launched a huge balloon, 344 feet long with a 6,000,000 cubic foot capacity. It carried over 170lbs of scientific equipment from the Unviersity of Minnesota, studying the ionosphere on its twelve hour flight. Four years later, powerful magnets mounted under balloons helped University of Chicago researchers find the first clues to the origin of cosmic rays.

In 1980, ‘Project Waterhole’ created a water vapour chemical reaction that poked a ‘hole’ in the northern lights. Three years later, a rocket launch ‘created’ aurora above Churchill and 1989 saw artificial clouds visible from ‘as far away as Los Alamos, New Mexico’ created by rocket launch experiments. After that, most activity was moved to Poker Flats Range in Alaska. Bristol and the Canadian Space Agency launched one final rocket at a cost of $1.5 million, as part of the Akjuit Aerospace’s drive to reopen the range.

While rockets are no longer fired from the range, research into the ionosphere continues on a limited basis by Environment Canada and through projects including an all-sky camera operating out of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.

- prepared by Kelsey Eliasson
- sources include Exploring Northern Skies: The Churchill Research Range by C. J. Taylor, Manitoba History, Number 44, and various articles from the New York Times Archives

One Response to Aurora Research

  1. Alina says:

    We are planning a trip to Canada by November and I would like to know if the northern lights can be seen at that time of the year.

    Thank you,

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