2013 Winner: Excellence In Science And Technology Public Awareness

Bringing The Aurora Borealis To The Public

Dr. Ian Mann remembers overhearing a passenger on a transatlantic flight saying she’d like to be in the cockpit to see the Northern Lights. He ran with the idea and approached the crew. He explained that as a space researcher he would love the opportunity to see the Aurora Borealis from the cockpit. Would it be possible? It was.

“The Aurora Borealis is one of most beautiful things in nature,” the principal investigator of AuroraWatch enthuses. “The view above the clouds was stunning. It was breathtaking to see the dancing lights up close in the northern night sky.”

Through AuroraWatch ( – created with the assistance of graduate students and researchers in his team – Dr. Mann is bringing that same excitement about the natural beauty of the Northern Lights and of space science research to the general public.

From Orbit to the Web

Using real-time satellite data retrieval and automated monitoring algorithms, AuroraWatch presents real-time aurora-watch forecasts on the web and continually monitors the space weather activity – issuing either a ‘yellow’ or ‘red’ aurora-watch alert based on the likelihood of observing aurora that night. The service is run from the Department of Physics at the University of Alberta and uses data retrieved from sensitive magnetic field monitoring equipment located at a magnetic observatory outside of Edmonton.

More than 20,000 email subscribers receive the free “AuroraWatch alerts”, and another 2,000 follow on Twitter (). The project has issued 175 alerts since 2009. AuroraWatch has followers around the world and has contributed to building the reputation of the University of Alberta and the province as a leader in global space science research.

Living the Dream 

For Dr. Mann, who recalls his space shuttle bedroom wallpaper as a child, coming to work everyday is a dream come true.

“I find great reward in discovering something that was not known previously,” he says.

Dr. Mann is a formal co-investigator on two NASA space missions and continues to research space storms with the goal of preventing or lessening their more “sinister” impacts. This can include massive power outages to terrestrial electrical power grids; and interruption to communication and Earth observation services affecting military security, communications and environmental and climate change monitoring, which are especially vulnerable in the Arctic.

“It’s increasingly important to understand how space storms work,” Dr. Mann says. “The future of humanity in the 21 century will be tied even more to utilizing space-based system upon which we increasingly rely.” He explains that space research has largely been controlled by national government agencies in the past; however, now and into the future, space will become increasingly commercialized with private industry playing a substantial role in using space to deliver services for the benefit of humanity.

On the Horizon

Partly through the work of Dr. Mann and the international attention AuroraWatch has garnered, Alberta’s aerospace industry is looking to become a recognized player in international space research. And that should translate into commercial opportunities in space and help diversify Alberta’s economy.

More immediately, Dr. Mann has been working with Alberta’s tourism industry looking to create a niche market for aurora-watchers. He points to the 100,000 visitors that go to Iceland every year to look at the Northern Lights.

“Why not Alberta as a destination for aurora-watchers?” he asks. “Edmonton is already the ‘Gateway to the North’; we want to make it ‘Gateway to the Northern Lights’, too.”