Canadian North’s “celestial light show” to be Web cast from Yellowknife

An online observatory dubbed “AuroraMAX” will soon be Web casting the northern phenomenon of the Aurora Borealis as it becomes increasingly more intense over the next few years, according to the Canadian Space Agency.

Each year, Canada’s north is treated to a celestial light show – the effect of solar winds brushing gently through Earth’s atmosphere. The results are seen by the naked eye as a beautiful array of thick, green bands of light spotted by a lick of red, dancing in the night sky.

The phenomenon is viewed in its resplendent glory at Yellowknife – the northern city sits in the centre of this magnetic oval – and is best seen towards the end of the summer.

So Yellowknife is where the Web cam will be located and the live broadcast will go online towards the end of the summer. For Canadians who’ve never made it up to the sub-Arctic to view the northern lights, Yellowknife mayor Gordon van Tighem offers a description.

“It’s like large curtains moving through the sky, deep and rich green colours with reddish tips,” he says. “Live and in colour coming to you from Yellowknife, the Aurora Borealis.”

Yellowknife will be providing a location for the Web cam, provided by the University of Calgary. Astronomy North will organize the project and images produced will provide data to a National Space Agency (NASA) mission that aims to better understand the Aurora.  

The Aurora has been a subject of University of Calgary imaging projects for more than four decades, explains Eric Donovan an associate professor in the department of physics and astronomy at the institute.

The university continues to run a wide range of devices that monitor the sky and has more than 50 active sites in Canada’s north.

We acted on this idea of taking one of our cameras to Yellowknife and running it up as a Web cam, Donovan says. “It would be a public outreach on the one hand, and provide valuable data research on the other.”

The Canadian Space Agency will pay for the imager to be set up, but it’s nothing too fancy. The camera is about a foot long and outfitted with a fish eye lens just a couple of inches in diameter. The optics take in the whole of the night sky and project it on to a CCD chip.

It’s a modified version of a Starlight Xpress Ltd. colour camera that’s popular among backyard astronomers around the world. So don’t expect the photos – updated to the Web site every several seconds – to match an HD experience the likes of Planet Earth.

“We’re creating a compromise between something that’s visually appealing and scientifically useful,” the astronomer says. “It will look like your average newspaper picture, degraded a bit.”

Bottomline: It’s not a tourism poster.

The camera is part of a University of Calgary project that aims to create a mosaic of the night sky from the perspective of ground-based cameras. To actually digest that amount of information, each photo must be a fairly low resolution. Otherwise, a massive amount of storage would be required.

Research conducted on the data will help shed light on the mystery behind the Aurora Borealis. It will also help the residents of Yellowknife better grasp the beauty that draws upwards of 15,000 tourists every season.

“I’ve always been a bit nervous about it because we’ve never really understood it,” van Tighem says. “Until people who make scientific studies of it came through town.”

The phenomen is caused by an interaction of the solar wind – charged particles emanating from the Sun – interacting with gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. The Sun is nearing a peak phase in its solar activity cycle that scientists anticipate will occur in 2012. Then, there will be more sunspots, or the colder and more magnetically dense areas of the Sun that are linked to the Aurora.

By understanding the Aurora, scientists hope to better grasp the nearby outer space environment surrounding Earth.

“The Aurora is the most effective way of sensing that environment,” Donovan says.

Yellowknife is hopeful the view of the northern lights on a computer screen might motivate more Aurora-watching tourists to head north. But they won’t be able to visit the building that houses the camera.

It is in an undisclosed location, as a security precaution.

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