USask researchers help NASA with climate science satellite mission

Two researcher from the University of Saskatchewan are contributing to a NASA multi-satellite mission that has pooled resources from 13 universities in Canada, the Canadian Space Agency, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and the National Research Council of Canada.

This mission aims to give better forecasts of climate, weather and air quality, with launch dates set in 2028 and 2031.

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The Canadian contribution to the project is called HAWC (High altitude aerosols, water vapour and clouds), and USask is developing two portions of that project, the ALI (Aerosol limb imager) and the SHOW (Spatial heterodyne observations of water).

Adam Bourassa, professor of physics and engineering physics at USask, said they’re working on instruments that are measuring the atmosphere.

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One of the instruments destined for space at USask being worked. University of Saskatchewan

“In our lab we develop next generation sensors and instruments to measure the atmosphere from space from satellite platforms to look at things like pollution and climate change and the ozone layer,” Bourassa said.

The overall project will also help in modelling predictions, and aid in preparing for extreme events like winter storms, wildfire smoke plumes and heavy precipitation.

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Bourassa said one of the instruments analyzes aerosols in the atmosphere, which are tiny droplets or tiny particles that could come from pollution, smoke and dust.

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He added that aerosols impact the atmosphere in many ways, affecting clouds and impacting the temperature and precipitation patterns.

Bourassa said the early idea for this project started 10 years ago, and that integrating the use of new technology that has never been in space was a long-time challenge for the team.

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Doug Degenstein, professor of engineering and physics at USask, said both instruments in development at the lab use the scattering and absorption of light from molecules to measure the content of the atmosphere.

He added that they’ve been building better devices as they’ve been getting increased funding, noting that one of the instruments is in its third iteration.

“They are basically ready for space now. The space base mounts have not been built, but the design and the testing is all done,” Degenstein said.

He said evaluations are on the way, noting that Canadian Space Agency engineers will be looking over everything with them.

One of the instruments destined for space at USask. University of Saskatchewan

Degenstein said the project has had heavy involvement from grad students as well.

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“The ALI instrument has been designed, built, redesigned, built, tested, redesigned, built again many times, but mainly by graduate students.”

According to a federal government release, more than $200 million has been contributed by Canada into this NASA project.

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Jason Cole, a research scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, said these instruments are very useful.

“It gives me data that I can use to understand the science and observe what’s happening in the atmosphere,” Cole said.

He said it will get better weather forecast models, and can take that information to cross-reference and make sure it’s an improved model.

Cole noted that having all three devices working in tandem from HAWC will give beneficial information to the public.

For example, he said a volcanic eruption could be looked at, and they could predict the effects of the eruption.

“We’d want to be able to know the eruption occurred, and actually to predict what would be the effect on climate going forward into the next season, the next year.”

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