Optical space research laboratory to study atmospheric gravity waves

September 30th, 2015, Published in Articles: EngineerIT, Uncategorised articles


The impressive UHF radar in Tromso.  Note the northern light.

The UHF radar in Tromso, Norway. Note the northern lights.

Dr. Sandile Malinga, CEO of the South African National Space Agency (SANSA)  has announced that a state-of-the-art optical space research laboratory (OSR), will be constructed at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Sutherland (the world’s darkest astronomical site) later this year. He was speaking at the 17th European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association (EISCAT) symposium and 42nd Annual European meeting on Atmospheric Studies by Optical Methods (42AM) to discuss global space science research. This was the first time for this conference to be hosted in South Africa, with attendance by top scientists from across the globe. The symposium was held in Hermanus, the home of the Magnetic Observatory of SANSA Space Sciences.

“Initially, the OSR will study atmospheric gravity waves and enable new research in optical space measurements to gain insight into the dynamics of the Earth’s middle atmosphere,” said Prof. Mike Kosch, SANSA’s chief scientist.

Prof Mike Kosch, SANSA Chief Scientist  with the EISAT radar near Tr0mso in Norway, the largest radar of its type in the world. The dish size is 120 x 10 metres.

Prof. Mike Kosch, SANSA chief scientist with the EISAT radar near Tromso in Norway. This is the largest radar of its type in the world, with a dish size of 120 x 10 m.

SANSA will also use the laboratory to record a phenomenon called “sprites”. Triggered by lightning, sprites are optical gas discharges from the top of convective thunderstorm clouds that appear briefly, but very brightly, at an altitude of between about 50 to 100 km. “Despite the fact that they are easily visible, nobody has ever reported seeing one over Africa,” said Prof. Kosch. “We hope to change this and capture the first images of sprites in Africa.”  The OSR will also host other projects with international partners, including the German Space Agency (DLR) and Boston University.

The EISCAT Scientific Association is an international research organisation that operates a network of radar systems used to study the interaction between the sun and Earth as revealed by disturbances in the ionosphere and magnetosphere.

“Through the work of EISCAT, we have been able to investigate various phenomena of the atmosphere in the altitude region of 50 to 2000 km,” said Dr. Malinga. “Not only has the science been ground-breaking, but the radar systems and technologies that are being used also continue to set new frontiers in instrumentation and remote sensing.”

A key highlight of the symposium was the EISCAT-3D radar project, currently under construction in Norway and set for finalisation in 2020. This unique location, within the auroral oval and at the edge of the atmospheric polar vortex, is ideal for studying many important atmospheric and geospace processes. According to Prof. Kosch, “This 120-million Euro project will be the most advanced, high-powered (10 MW), phased radar array (with 10 000 elements) in the world. The use of state-of-the-art signal processing and beam-forming techniques will allow real-time 3D radar imaging of the ionosphere for the first time.”

“The capabilities and flexibility of the powerful, new EISCAT-3D radar systems demand collaboration among a large group of active scientists and engineers to help realise the promise of new discoveries and provide sufficient numbers of well-trained individuals to move the project forward,” said EISCAT director, Dr. Craig Heinselman.

Dr Malinga added that the EISCAT-3D will significantly increase our big data management capability, data analytics and further strengthen multinational collaboration. “Projects like these set new benchmarks in scientific enquiry and increase our understanding of the atmosphere and space environment, leading to technological innovations in space monitoring instrumentation and measurement.”

“The symposium covered a number of other important space science topics, especially those related to space weather, an area of research which is equally relevant to both developed and developing nations due to our increasing reliance on space-based systems and our continued use of high frequency communication,” said Dr. Craig Heinselman. “The broad international attendance illustrates that the important scientific questions in this field are global and widely interconnected.”

Space science research is complex and requires significant multinational collaboration. By combining the EISCAT radar symposium and 42AM optical meeting, SANSA and the EISCAT community aim to increase collaboration between communities in upper-atmosphere studies.

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