Space Physics Group, University of Calgary

2018 Winner: ASTech Special Award

University of Calgary leaves lasting legacy in Space technology

In the late 1990s, exploration of a radically new application of digital imaging technology, known as the Charge Couple Device (CCD), began at University of Calgary. Over ten years, novel CCD-based charged particle imagers were developed and flown into space on a series of sub-orbital sounding rocket flights that led to numerous scientific discoveries. These CCD-based particle imagers became the basis for instruments on two scientific satellite missions currently in orbit with the European Space Agency.

What problem did you see a need to solve and how did you solve this real- world problem?

David Knudsen, professor and head of the department of physics and astronomy and a member of the Space Physics Group at the University of Calgary.: In the 1970s, one of the first cameras to be put in space to look back at earth and the Aurora was developed here in this group at the University of Calgary. One of the people working with that data was a high school student named James Gosling, who went on to develop the Java programming language. Since that time, there have been dozens of researchers, students and professors working on a series of problems dealing with the northern lights—more generally what we call the near-Earth space environment. We’re really interested in the interaction between the sun, through its emission of the solar wind, the wind of charged particles that interact with the earth’s magnetic field to create the Aurora and other effectsWe’re studying the upper atmosphere and the solar terrestrial connection; there have been a series of technological and scientific developments over those four decades. 

What has been the impact?

There are two streams: the technology and the science. One of the big accomplishments of the Space Physics Group was to take the Charge Coupled Device (CCD) that was developed in the 1960s—which led to a Nobel Prize for two scientists, including one Canadian to an actual core tool for use in scientific instrumentation that’s now everywhereThe first CCD deployment for scientific use was for the all-sky camera, developed here by Dr. Leroy Cogger, and then deployed in Manitoba. It was operated for many years, looking at the sky and the development of the Aurora. Since then, these CCD chips have gone into a whole fleet of satellite instruments.  

Currently, there are dozens of ground-based cameras throughout Canada and Alaska that are building up mosaics of the northern lights. Pushing that technology has been a large contribution. Scientifically, there are very difficult unsolved problems. We make steps, and we’ve uncovered layers of the problem, but the Aurora is still an unsolved problem, scientifically. We can’t claim that one yet, but that’s an example of the work we do. 

Has being in Alberta helped you find success?  

Alberta isn’t recognized as a space center for Canada, but the history is long with 20 instruments launched into space.   

We want to see the industry develop more and this research has contributed to the Alberta economy and diversification through spinoff companies. One company, ITRES, is using this CCD-based camera technology to deal with space or airplane-based remote sensing of crops and hydrology, for exampleAnother company, Keo Scientific, builds cameras, which sell for scientific purposes all over the world.  

Who have been your major supporters?

Most of our funding comes from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and NSERC. More recently we have projects supported by the European Space Agency (ESA)We have four satellites in orbit with ESA support.  Also, we have an increasing amount of support from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI).   

What are the plans for the future?

We have a broad array of ground instrumentation and major CFIfunded initiatives to deploy denser instrument arrays in central Canada. CurrentlyCSA is here negotiating plans for a new satellite camera, an ultraviolet imager, called SMILE. It’s in conjunction with the China National Space Administration and the European Space Agency with Canada providing this key element, which is a direct descendant of the first space camera observations 40-plus years ago.  

We continue to work on fundamental technologies including a line in which we take these CCD cameras that are used to measure light and use them to take measurements of charged particles. It is a separate but parallel development that we hope will go far into the future.  

How does it feel to be an ASTech Finalist? 

Oh, great! You have your nose to the grindstone year after year and you’re not in it for the awards, but it’s nice to stop and look back at all the accomplishments that everyone has done in collaboration. It’s great to take a little breather occasionally and see how far you’ve come.