Measuring the weather in space

When designing instruments that can gauge winds and temperatures in space, smaller is the way to go.

By Erin Guiltenane
March 2016

When it comes the technology needed to measure the weather in space, researchers at the University of Calgary are leading the field in the development of mini-instrumentation — devices that can fit into the palm of your hand and are pushing the boundaries of space exploration. 

Johnathan Burchill, a researcher in the Department of Physics and Astronomy (PHAS), is designing and testing a prototype for a miniature version of a plasma/space instrument that measures winds and temperatures of charged particles in the Earth’s space environment. Burchill was sought out for the job by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). 

“The CSA identified this project as one of its priority technologies to develop as part of its Space Technology Development Program,” says Burchill, whose previous experience includes a postdoctoral fellowship conducting upper-atmospheric research and building rocket instrumentation at NASA. The miniature plasma imager he is designing will be low-mass, making it suitable for flights on tiny satellites known as nano-satellites.

Smaller payload means lower price tag 

“One benefit of having something smaller, and lower mass, is that it will cost much less to launch into orbit compared to conventional scientific satellites,” Burchill says. “In principle, they’ll also cost a lot less to make. This opens the door to space missions involving clusters of nano-satellites to greatly improve our understanding of the space environment.”

“One benefit of having something smaller, and lower mass, is that it will cost much less to launch into orbit compared to conventional scientific satellites."

The new prototype will build upon work that Burchill has already done as part of Swarm, a €200 million Earth-Observing-class satellite mission launched by the European Space Agency in 2013, whose three satellites are measuring the geomagnetic field with unprecedented precision. PHAS researchers contributed to the initial design, in-flight software, data processing, and final testing for a space plasma imager, one of the Swarm instruments’ crucial components, and the technology upon which Burchill’s prototype will be based. The University of Calgary was the lead scientific institution for the mission’s “Electric Field Instrument” (EFI), a key instrument aboard each of Swarm’s satellites, and is the only university in Canada that designs and flies space plasma instrumentation.

As he moves forward with his design, Burchill says that he will make several changes from the original devices built for the Swarm mission. “The biggest change will be the detector,” he tells. “It will be a specialized charge-coupled device (CCD) that can detect charged particles instead of light.”

Rubik's Cube-sized device will deliver more accurate measurements

The new prototype will be similar to the Swarm instruments, but its lower mass and size will allow an increased focus on multi-point in situ measurements in space physics. More specifically, it will examine the physics of processes in Earth’s upper atmosphere, and how energy from the sun affects the structure and motion of matter within it. The device will be able to measure ion winds and temperatures at altitudes up to 1000 km.

“We think we can use a new kind of technology where the CCD is sensitive to the ions, which should make it smaller and more accurate,” Burchill explains.

Along with his own experience and expertise, Burchill is ideally positioned to design an innovative device that will make advancements in quantifying the mysteries of space. “The expertise in measuring low-energy ions lies in Calgary,” he says. “UCalgary has an excellent reputation internationally for this kind of science and these kinds of measurements.”

Burchill will spend the next two years developing the prototype in PHAS’ Space and Atmospheric Instrumentation Lab (SAIL), working alongside space firm COM DEV Canada.

UCalgary a world leader in space instrumentation technology

The university's leadership in space science is built on a long-standing partnership with the CSA and with a large network of international collaborators from partner universities, industry, and government agencies including the National Research Council, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Science Foundation and the European, Japanese and Chinese space agencies — leading to 20 major space missions and space technology development projects.

New Earth-Space Technologies is one of the University of Calgary’s strategic research priorities building on decades of national leadership. By bringing together researchers from across disciplines for exploration and discovery in geospatial information and environmental monitoring, the University of Calgary will continue to inform decision and policy-makers while contributing to the development of an important industry sector.

In pushing the frontiers of earth-space research, technology spillover benefits can also be applied to other critical challenges; for example, the space science-medical hybrid NeuroArm that uses the CanadArm robotic arm to perform precision brain surgery. 



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