The University's Space Institute

    The mysteries of the heavens are being explored at the Institute for Space Science, Exploration and Technology (ISSET)

    By Hayley Dunning on February 3, 2011

    David Miles with a prototype searchcoil magnetometer and magnetic test equipment

    David Miles, ISSET fellow, with a prototype of a searchcoil magnetometer

    If you’ve ever wondered about the source of the stars or the lights of an aurora, the answer to your question can probably be found at the University’s Institute for Space Science, Exploration and Technology (ISSET).

    ISSET was founded to bring together space experts from across disciplines and reach out to the campus and the community. Edmonton may seem an unlikely spot for a space research hub, but scientists and engineers at the University of Alberta are involved in everything from studying space weather and meteorites to building instruments for satellites in collaboration with NASA, the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

    For ISSET fellow David Miles, the Institute’s most exciting project is a small Canadian satellite mission called ORBITALS (The Outer Radiation Belt Injection, Transport, Acceleration, and Loss Satellite). In 2012, the satellite will be launched into the hostile environment known as the inner radiation belt, where high-energy particles streaming from the sun are trapped by the Earth’s magnetic field.

    “What we’re proposing to do with ORBITALS is build a spacecraft and a suite of instruments that are very radiation tolerant, and will dwell in the radiation belts for about two years, explains Miles. “In those two years we will probably generate more data from the inner radiation belts than has ever been measured before.”

    It’s not just professors and graduate students who get to send things into outer space, though. An ISSET undergraduate student group was formed last year and has already begun an ambitious project to compete in the Canadian Satellite Design Challenge. The national competition could result in a satellite designed, built, tested and subsequently flown by University of Alberta students. ISSET has also secured funding for up to 20 Canadian students per year to visit the Andoya Rocket Range in the high Norwegian Arctic, where they’ll take an intensive week-long rocket course, culminating in the launch of their experiments on the backs of re-purposed military rockets.

    David Miles with a giant magnetoimpedence magnetometer prototype

    David Miles with a giant magnetometer prototype.

    For the youngest space enthusiast, ISSET runs a Space Academy summer camp for kids in Grades 7-9, and last year held the Northern Lights Art and Photography Contest, giving students the chance to win a video-conference with Canadian astronaut Julie Payette

    For the more mature stargazer, ISSET runs an annual symposium on space exploration every fall with free public lectures. Last year’s keynote speaker was Lawrence Krauss, a space physicist and author of popular science books, including The Physics of Star Trek.

    But the simplest way for alumni to get involved in ISSET’s programming is through Aurora Watch. Developed by ISSET fellow Kyle Murphy, ’07 BSc, ’09 MSc, Aurora Watch predicts the likelihood of Northern Lights in the Edmonton area based on a database of graphs for the past 25 years and sends subscribers an email alert a few hours ahead of time. A red alert means a 70-percent chance or more of aurora. Solar activity has been low in the past couple of years, but the solar cycle is ramping up and the frequency and magnitude of the aurora should be increasing starting this winter. Although the Northern Lights are best viewed away from the city, they can still be seen from the city’s streets.

    “The best display I saw was from Whyte Ave.,” says Andy Kale, the day-to-day operator of Aurora Watch. “There were lights in the street and the sky was full of light.”

    More solar activity also means more disruption to the magnetosphere, creating unstable conditions that could have some serious impacts on Earth. A huge storm in the Earth’s magnetic field in 1989 caused a blackout in Quebec that left almost six million people without power for nine hours. ISSET researchers are exploring ways to predict when such storms will occur, from observations and modelling to algorithms based on historical data like the one used in Aurora Watch. As the Sun gains energy and human communications expand, the work of institutes like ISSET becomes even more important.

    Andy Kale with a searchcoil magnetometer

    Andy Kale with a searchcoil magnetometer.