May 31, 2021
Photons Canada news

Northern lights – Aurora Borealis Photonics in use

This month we will focus on the photonics used in space and space applications.

Canada is the country that can observe the Northern lights that not only offer a unique spectacle for the eye but whose study can bring an important understanding of the phenomenon and its importance in different areas like communication.

The northern lights (aurora borealis) are a phenomenon that can be observed in the night sky in the northern hemisphere and is due to the interaction of charged particles (electrons and protons) that collide with gases in Earth’s upper atmosphere. Those collisions produce tiny flashes that fill the sky with colourful light. Earth’s magnetic field steers the charged particles towards the poles.

Scientists are only beginning to understand phenomena linked to Earth’s magnetic field. Research being led by Canadians is helping provide a better understanding. Here are some of the projects with regards to the Aurora Borealis: ePop a project that contains a suite of scientific instruments on the CASSIOPE satellite to observe the ionosphere. THEMIS, twenty observatories on the ground and five small satellites carrying electric, magnetic, and particle detectors to study auroras. Space weather over Canada a project in which Canadian scientists design and operate instruments to improve understanding of the causes and processes of space weather.

In the ePop project, CASSIOPE is carrying instrumentation (photonics devices) to observes the ionosphere. In addition, two technological advancements are supported by the mission: A new Smallsat spacecraft Bus and a communications technology demonstrator, Cascade Launched in 2018 it has joined the trio from ESA of swarm satellites. Cascade is providing a ‘proof of concept design for a high-volume store-and-forward data communications operational concept. As a courier in the sky, Cascade’s operational concept is to pick up very large digital data files and deliver them to almost any destination in the world. It is one step in the HTSN (High transmission Satellite Network) program of Canada lead by NRC under the federal mandate.

THEMIS (for “time history of events and macroscale interactions during substorms”) is a project that looks at auroras. In North America, 20 observatories equipped with automated, all-sky cameras take pictures every three seconds over the two-year mission, for a total of 140 million pictures that will be compared to data collected by the satellites using photonics devices. This mission was launched in 2007 and is still active.

The radiation from the Sun and particles from space interact in complex ways with both the upper atmosphere and the Earth’s magnetic field, causing a range of effects including the auroras and storms in space that can damage satellites and spacecraft, disrupt communications and navigation around the world, and damage power networks on the ground this is the reason why the project Space weather over Canada is so important.


Link: CASSIOPE: Observing space weather with a hybrid satellite – Canadian Space Agency (

Link: The stakeout for northern lights in the Canadian tundra – Canadian Space Agency (

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