U of A-led space mission propelled by significant new funding

Mission to assess effects of space radiation on Earth’s climate will open up scientific and economic opportunities for Alberta and Canada, says astrophysicist.

Michael Brown - 03 March 2021

The University of Alberta is mission control for a made-in-Canada space research project that could revolutionize the way we think about how the sun influences our planet while asserting Canada’s place among the stars.

“It is the beginning of a new era of space exploration, where space exploration used to be just the domain of large space agencies and very expensive missions,” said Ian Mann, a physicist in the Faculty of Science and principal investigator on the RADiation Impacts on Climate and Atmospheric Loss Satellite (RADICALS) mission.

“The development of the RADICALS mission will secure Canada and Alberta as a future leader of the low-cost exploitation and exploration of space.”

The $20.3-million, pan-Canadian mission, which includes substantial contributions from the universities of Calgary and Toronto, received $8.1 million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI)—$6.1 million of which is coming to the U of A.

“There's a level of democratization of space with commercial actors now utilizing space for a whole range of services for the benefit of Canadians and humanity in general,” said Mann, who was recently inducted as a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and is a faculty adviser with AlbertaSat, a group of U of A students and faculty members who design, build, test, launch and operate nano-satellites.

Mann explained that severe space radiation—the scientific focus of the mission—is not only a poorly understood risk that can result in the catastrophic loss of satellites, but may also play a role in affecting Earth’s climate.

And while the sun is already known to be the major driver of climate, space radiation is continuously being created and then dumped into Earth’s atmosphere by a complex “cosmic accelerator” as part of space weather. The levels of radiation can fluctuate by four or five orders of magnitude, depending on what is happening on the surface of the sun, creating a highly variable and largely unpredictable environment.

Measurements from the RADICALS mission will assess the energy input into the atmosphere from space radiation for the first time, allowing the resulting effects to be assessed in global climate models.

When this radiation is dumped into the atmosphere, it can get to altitudes of 50 to 60 kilometres above the Earth’s surface and change the chemistry at that altitude.

“That can be involved in the catalytic destruction of high-altitude chemicals, including ozone,” he said. “But we don't actually know how much radiation ends up in the atmosphere, because we never had the right measurements to be able to characterize how much energy is being dumped into the atmosphere.

“The RADICALS mission will change that.”

Not only is Earth’s climate changing, but the sun is also changing. Mann added that developing a proper understanding of these coupled climate processes is especially important if the impact of the evolving sun on the changing climate of our planet is to be fully understood.

“We literally live in the outer atmosphere of our star. It is blowing past us continuously in the form of the solar wind. We want to learn how to live in that environment, and to understand how the sun is affecting our existence and life on this planet.”

Mann said the mission is also another recognition that space is becoming an increasingly important national asset for Canada.

“Space is increasingly being used as a vantage point from which we can collect the information that we need in order to be able to live the best life that we can live on this planet,” he said, adding the potential benefits range from improved stewardship of our planet to economic and security opportunities.

“Those companies that are able to miniaturize technology, get to space more cheaply and provide services there more reliably are going to make a positive socio-economic impact for the province and Canada.”

Mann added that the aerospace sector is an area where there are huge economic opportunities for the province of Alberta to diversify.

“Alberta is unquestionably a Canadian leader in space science. We want to use this mission as a beacon to guide future investment in that sector, and to derive future economic benefits for the province of Alberta in the new space era.”

All told, five U of A-led projects received $24.1 million in CFI funding, of which $19.3 million is coming to the U of A. The balance will go to project partner institutions across Canada. An additional eight projects led out of partner institutions secured $8.2 million in CFI funding for the U of A. Proposals for matching provincial funding for these projects are with the provinces pending results.

CFI funding for physics projects led by U of A

Frank Hegmann, Jacob Burgess (University of Manitoba)
Ultrafast Nanoscale Quantum Dynamics (UltraNanoQD) Innovation
$3.9 million from CFI with $3.7 million coming to the U of A and $234,000 to U of M for project worth $9.7 million

Ian Mann
RADiation Impacts on Climate and Atmospheric Loss Satellite (RADICALS) Mission
$8.1 million in CFI funding, with $6.1 million coming to the U of A and $2 million to the University of Calgary for project worth $20.3 million

David Westaway, Michael Woodside
Protein Misfolding Scientific Exploration (ProMiSE) Team: Infrastructure Support for Remediation of Protein Misfolding
$3.9 million in CFI funding for project worth $9.6 million

CFI funding for physics projects where U of A is partner institution

Michel Fich (Waterloo), U of A principal investigator: Erik Roslolowsky
CCAT-prime: A Submillimetre Wavelength Survey Telescope in Chile
$4.9 million in CFI funding of which $750,000 is coming to the U of A. The total cost of the project is $28.8 million.

Mark Boulay (Carleton), U of A principal investigator: Aksel Hallin
Development of Next Generation Liquid Argon Dark Matter Detector and of an Underground Argon Storage Facility at SNOLAB
$6.9 million in CFI funding of which $3 million is coming to the U of A. The total cost of the project is $22.6 million.

Paul Barclay (University of Calgary), U of A principal investigator: John Davis
A Quantum Diamond and Hybrid Photonics (QDHyP) Foundry
$5.2 million in CFI funding of which $2 million is coming to the U of A. The total cost of the project is $13.1 million. 

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