Seventeen years after he first proposed the idea, Andrew Yau is finally getting a front-row seat to one of the nearest yet least understood parts of outer space – the part that starts where Earth's atmosphere ends.
The University of Calgary physicist is project scientist for CASSIOPE, Canada's latest space mission, which was successfully launched Sunday atop a rocket built by the private company Space X.
"So far so good," said Dr. Yau. "I'm definitely excited and relieved. Now the real work begins."
For Dr. Yau and his colleagues, the real work involves a detailed exploration of ionosphere, an ephemeral realm of electric currents, magnetic fields and energized particles that intimately connects our planet to the interplanetary space environment that is dominated by our sun.
The 481-kilogram spacecraft is now in an elliptical orbit that is highly inclined with respect to the equator. That will allow CASSIOPE to probe the complexities of Earth's magnetic field as it converges around the north and south magnetic poles. The spacecraft's cameras will also spy on the aurorae – the northern and southern lights – that ring the opposite ends of the planet.
It will also directly sample energized atoms are caught up in the magnetic field as they are whipped out into space and the incoming particles from the solar wind that rain down on the poles to create the aurorae – and not just at night when they can be seen from the ground.
"If we're lucky we'll have the first opportunity to image the visible aurora on the day side," said Dr. Yau.
Deputy mission scientist Gordon James said the mission would aid researchers in their efforts to better predict space weather, the sometimes violent fluctuations of energetic particles and fields that are triggered by storms on the sun and can wreak havoc with communications and power systems on Earth.
CASSIOPE's scientific mission has venerable roots that reach back to Canada's first satellite, Alouette 1, launched in 1962. It was among the first spacecraft to survey the electrically active region beyond the atmosphere known as the ionosphere.
"One might say it's 'back to the ionosphere,'" said Dr. James, who is based at the federal Communications Research Centre at Shirleys Bay, near Ottawa, where Alouette 1 was built. "Over the last 50 years, we've begun to appreciate the complexity of this important boundary region and the ways it can influence the environment that we live in."
Announced by the Canadian Space Agency in 2004, CASSIOPE had a longer than expected journey to the launch pad. Space X, founded by Internet mogul Elon Musk, was only two years old then and still working out the bugs in its launch system. The company later took on the task of developing a capsule to supply the International Space Station. Sunday's launch marked the first use of a new type of engine in the company's workhorse Falcon 9 rocket.
In addition to CASSIOPE, six small satellites run by Cornell University, the University of Colorado at Boulder and Utah State University were launched as secondary payloads on the same rocket.
"The launch was spectacular," said CASSIOPE program manager Carlos Alonso, who watched the rocket lift off from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Mr. Alonso is an senior engineer with MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. of Richmond B.C., which is the mission's industry partner and builder of CASSIOPE. He is also overseeing a communications technology package called Cascade, which is flying along with the science instruments on board the spacecraft.
Cascade will demonstrate the high speed transfer of large data files – ranging tens to hundreds of gigabytes in size – via satellite. In future, the technology could be used to relay large amounts of data from remote regions, such at the Arctic or the mid-Pacific.
"The idea is to pick up very large digital data files and deliver them to almost any destination in the world," Mr. Alonso said.