University of Saskatchewan

September 22, 2014   

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Student Marion Thorpe constructs new radar in Inuvik. [Photo courtesy of Bill Marshall]
October 11, 2007

What’s the weather like in outer space today? U of S team constructs radar in Inuvik to better understand atmospheric weather
October 11, 2007
Thirteenth in a Series
For The Star-Phoenix
by Wendy Gillis

While most people this summer were wondering about the weather at the lake, a team of University of Saskatchewan students and faculty were focusing on the weather a little further away from home – in outer space.

This summer, a group of U of S students, physicists, and engineers worked together to build a radar in Inuvik, Northwest Territories to help better understand and forecast weather patterns in Earth’s atmosphere, knowledge that has become important due to increasing reliance on satellite technology.

Space weather events such as strong solar storms can destroy satellites in space, interrupting banking transactions and affecting telecommunications including television, internet and telephone signals, says Kathryn McWilliams, an assistant professor of physics and engineering physics.

“People are taking a lot more notice [of space weather] because all of a sudden when Canadians’ cell phones aren’t working, then it’s going to impact a lot of people,” she says. The team is building the U of S’s fourth state-of-the-art, high-frequency space weather radar -- the newest addition to the Super Dual Auroral Radar Network (SuperDARN), an international initiative that unites space weather radars from around the world to share information. The pair of radars in the north has been named PolarDARN to highlight its special role in the SuperDARN initiative.

By measuring the movement of charged particles in Earth’s atmosphere set in motion by solar winds, the radar will help space weather scientists understand how the Sun’s atmosphere affects Earth’s, in turn enabling space weather predictions.

By working in conjunction with another radar at Rankin Inlet in Nunavut, the new radar will obtain two-dimensional voltage maps over most of the northern polar cap, allowing scientists to measure the impacts of solar winds on Earth’s magnetic field.

Second-year mathematical physics student Marian Thorpe went to Inuvik to construct the radar. Thanks to the project’s Canadian and international partners, Thorpe was able to find a summer job that offered both travel and learning opportunities.

“I was very excited because I have never been to Inuvik before, and it’s a really great opportunity,” says Thorpe.

Her job was the same one McWilliams held as a summer student, an experience which launched her research career: McWilliams built the first Canadian SuperDARN radar at the Saskatoon location.

Fellow student Wilson Brenna is is working to develop software to analyze the weather recorded by the PolarDARN radars. Brenna, who is in second year of an engineering physics and mathematics double degreeis funded through a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

He says the project opened his eyes to opportunities available in the field of space weather research.

“My interest had never really been in space,” he recalls. “Now I see that there’s a lot more opportunity, especially in Saskatchewan.”

McWilliams says the radars are key to breaking ground in the study of space weather, a relatively new field.

“The thing I like is that it’s kind of a mystery,” she says. “Our research is very interesting because Earth’s magnetic field is so huge that it’s such a challenge to get the instruments that can measure the things that you want to see.”

With the radars, the team aims to find information that will permit longer-range predictions of space weather.

“It’s kind of like the long-term weather forecasts on the ground – they’re pretty good for a day or two ahead, but a week in advance you really have no idea,” jokes McWilliams. “We’re pretty good 10 or 20 minutes ahead [of a space weather event], but we’re aiming to know a little more in advance.”

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