Space Weatherman

Learn how Marjorie Grady, contract specialist, helps Dr. Ian Mann and David Barona, Faculty of Science.

Sandra Kinash - 22 May 2018

Above our heads, deep in space, weather exists and so do storms with the potential to reach Earth causing power outages and knocking out satellites. Dr. Ian Mann, professor of physics in the Faculty of Science, hopes to better forecast that space weather.

There is a long history of space research at the University of Alberta with significant funding from the Canadian Space Agency, a federal government organization. The funding has primarily been channeled through sizable contracts, particularly with Public Works and Government Services Canada.

"Without this funding we couldn't have made the international impact in space research we have," says Mann.

To manage the relationship with the sponsor on these large contracts, Mann relies on the expertise and guidance of RSO.

"When we sign a contract with the federal government, it comes with a standard set of clauses that we are automatically bound by," Mann says, adding, "We meet those clauses by drawing on expertise from RSO and making sure we meet the financial reporting requirements."

As project manager and systems engineer on Mann's research team, David Barona works closely with Marjorie Grady, contract specialist at RSO.

"Once the agreement is in place I make sure that all work is performed within the stipulated budget and timelines and conforms to the rules and clauses in the agreements," says Barona.

When a new contract is awarded Grady reviews the terms of the contract for elements like intellectual property rights.

"There are things we know we can agree to and then there are project specific items like knowing what kind of background intellectual property you are bringing in and what kind of use rights the sponsor is expecting," she says.

Grady summarizes concerns in the contract and sends them to Mann and Barona for their opinion.

"We have good communication because they are responsive and give me yes or no answers or advise me to find out more about a clause and what it means," she says.

The team worked closely with Terry Le Corre, finance analyst, to help them meet the sponsor's financial reporting requirements. Le Corre, now retired, even invited both Mann and Barona to her retirement party.

"Terry helped with things like fielding questions about claims to show that we behaved appropriately," Mann says adding, "There was a significant work load in RSO in dealing with the financial authority at the federal government. If it wasn't for RSO we'd have to deal with this on our own."

Barona agrees. "By ensuring we can conform to all legal clauses in the contract, RSO helps us remain in good standing with sponsors so that they are willing to give us new contracts," he says.

Mann's team uses magnetometers to measure space weather on the ground and combines that data with measurements from satellites, including ones from a number of partner NASA missions and also from Ex-Alta 1, the AlbertaSat cube satellite built by UAlberta students.

A big space storm can result in both intense radiation that has the potential to knock out satellites, and drive unwanted electrical currents in power grids, potentially cutting off electricity and causing blackouts which could occur on continent scales.

"Now you are talking about not only huge socio-economic impacts but also the risk of loss of human life, arising for example as a result of loss of electrical power to essential services," says Mann.

Ex-Alta 1 uses a magnetometer to see waves and current systems, a sensor to measure radiation, and a detector, built by Norwegian colleagues, to measure electron density and temperature. In the future, Mann hopes to use more and even smaller satellites to get a better picture.

"Think of the movie Twister with the deployment of all those little sensors placed into the eye of a tornado," he says. "Our goal is to put out a similar flotilla of miniature satellites into space storms to give us a whole picture of what's going on instead of a relying, as we do now, on only a few single points of data from a small number of satellites."

This article comes from RSO's Report to the Community 2017.