June 5, 2015

University team named to solar wind monitoring mission study

Department of Physics and Astronomy researchers join international 'SMILE' project
Eric Donovan, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and his research group will join researchers from the U.K., China, and the U.S. to propose the Solar Wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer project, or SMILE.
Eric Donovan, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and his research group will join Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

If you happen to bump into Eric Donovan, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and pictured above, you might notice a huge SMILE on his face.

Donovan and his research group joined a team of researchers from the U.K., China, and the U.S. to propose the Solar Wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer project, or SMILE.

The SMILE mission will investigate the dynamic response of the Earth's magnetosphere to the impact of the solar wind in a way never attempted before. This exclusive research will allow us to more fully define how things that happen in the solar wind affect space around earth.

'SMILE' bid selected for further study 

The SMILE proposal was one of 13 submitted by international teams to a recent joint European Space Agency/Chinese Academy of Sciences competition for a mission opportunity. On Thursday, it was announced that SMILE has been the only one of these proposed missions to be selected for the next phase, a four-month study to address a series of questions raised by the two funding agencies. If these are successfully dealt with, the mission will get a “green light” for full implementation.

For their role in SMILE, Donovan and his team will be responsible for the ultra-violet imager that will observe and measure the properties of the northern aurora. The University of Calgary Auroral Imaging Group has worked with funding from the Canadian Space Agency to develop a number of candidate imagers for this and other mission opportunities. A study of the magnitude of SMILE is yet another demonstration of the University of Calgary’s, and in fact Canada’s, place on the world stage.

With SMILE, researchers will image X-rays produced from the impact of the solar wind and the magnetosphere and take simultaneous images of the aurora that are produced as a result of that interaction. “It’s a completely revolutionary way of looking at the causal chain of events between the solar wind and earth’s upper atmosphere,” says Donovan.

This is a simulation of soft X-rays being emitted from the boundary between the solar wind and Earth's magnetosphere, as they would be seen by the SMILE X-ray imager.

Simulation of soft X-rays emitted from the boundary between solar wind and Earth's magnetosphere.

SMILE proposal team

Satellite will look back towards Earth

“A satellite will go into orbit about 125,000 kilometres from Earth and will look back towards the Earth,” says Donovan. “We will be nailing down, quantitatively, how different things that happen in the solar wind affect the region of space around the earth.”

Just like meteorologists studying terrestrial weather, space physicists require satellite and ground observations, numerical models, data assimilation, and remote sensing including imaging.

“One of the cool parts is that we are specifically looking at aurora that is directly tied to the impact of the solar wind, which for most of the year is in daylight,” says Emma Spanswick, associate director of the University of Calgary’s Auroral Imaging Group. Spanswick explains that the research team needs to design an ultra-violet imager that can separate aurora from the Earth’s albedo (the fraction of solar energy reflected from the Earth back into space) and ionospheric dayglow.  “It’s technically challenging in the extreme,” she adds.

'Technically challenging in the extreme'

The challenges ahead are daunting, something that is not lost on Donovan. “Success would be very high profile, but so too would be failure. Naturally, we are aiming for success.”

SMILE is expected to launch around the end of 2021 and the mission duration is initially planned to be three years.

Donovan is recognized for his transformative impact on ground-based space physics observations. He has played leadership roles in national and international initiatives including the Canadian Space Agency’s GeoSpace Monitoring, NASA’s THEMIS mission, and the upcoming Resolute Bay Incoherent Scatter Radar.