About SCISAT

SCISAT, 15 years of success
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Launched on , SCISAT helps a team of Canadian and international scientists improve their understanding of the depletion of the ozone layer, with a special emphasis on the changes occurring over Canada and in the Arctic.

The Canadian SCISAT mission is a partnership of universities, government, and industry. A scientific team of researchers from around the world, led by Professor Peter Bernath of the University of Waterloo is conducting the Atmospheric Chemistry Experiment (ACE) on SCISAT, which aims to measure and understand the chemical processes that control the distribution of ozone in the Earth's atmosphere, particularly in the northern latitudes.

Originally intended to last two years, fifteen years later the satellite is still operational and its mission has been extended until . "It's been a real success", says Bernath.

Tiny and thorough

SCISAT is the first atmospheric research satellite developed and flown by the CSA since ISIS-2 in the early 1970s. With a diameter of 112 cm, a height of 104 cm, and a total mass of only 150 kg, tiny SCISAT has a 650-km-high polar orbit, circling the Earth 15 times a day. Its scientific instruments—a Fourier-transform spectrometer and another instrument named MAESTRO (for "Measurements of Aerosol Extinction in the Stratosphere and Troposphere Retrieved by Occultation")—use sunlight to identify the gases and particles in the Earth's middle atmosphere. The data help us better understand ozone layer depletion.

Credit: Canadian Space Agency

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of infographics SCISAT in numbers

This infographic shows statistics on SCISAT, a small Canadian satellite that monitors ozone in the stratosphere and helps scientists improve their understanding of ozone depletion, with a special emphasis on the changes occurring over Canada and in the Arctic.

Here are the numbers and the explanations:

  • Launch in 2003. The satellite was launched on .
  • 74° inclination. In order to collect data over a large part of the Canadian Arctic, SCISAT orbits the Earth at an angle of 74° in relation to the equator.
  • 2 instruments. Equipped with two optical instruments, SCISAT measures the distribution of gas species in the Earth's atmosphere.
  • 30 publications per year. SCISAT data is found in over 30 scientific journal articles per year.
  • 100 institutions. Over 100 institutions worldwide have been involved in publications related to SCISAT.
  • 66 trace gases. SCISAT measures more gases than any other space-based instrument in the world.
  • 15 orbits per day. SCISAT completes an orbit every 95 minutes or so, meaning that it circles the Earth about 15 times per day.
  • Altitude of 650 km. SCISAT orbits the Earth at an altitude of 650 km.
  • 6016 solar occultations per year on average. SCISAT experiences many sunrises and sunsets in a day. At those times, it takes various measurements using the sun's rays passing through the Earth's atmosphere. This technique is called solar occultation.

SCISAT focuses its attention in the stratosphere, where the ozone layer is located. It provides the most accurate measurements to date of chemicals that affect ozone, which blocks the sun's biologically damaging ultraviolet radiation and prevents most of it from reaching the Earth's surface.

It measures more than 60 different atmospheric trace gases, which is "more thorough than anything that's up there," said Peter Bernath, a University of Waterloo chemistry professor who heads the SCISAT science team.

SCISAT, Ozone and CFCs

Ozone—comprised of three atoms of oxygen—is constantly being created and destroyed by natural chemical processes in the atmosphere. The amount of ozone present at any given time varies depending on the balance between the processes of creation and destruction.

Industrial activities on Earth produce chemicals— notably chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)—that affect this balance by destroying stratospheric ozone. They not only reduce the ozone shield around the globe, they actually eat large holes in the ozone layer over the Antarctic each year, and also cause significant losses over the Arctic. In the past two decades, average ozone levels over Canada have dropped about 6%, while severe declines of 20-40% have occurred over the Arctic in the spring.

ACE: an important asset for international environmental policy

The Atmospheric Chemistry Experiment (ACE) on SCISAT was launched into a 650-kilometre-high, high-inclination orbit that takes it over the polar regions of the Earth, as well as tropical and mid-latitude locations. It measures chemical molecules that influence the distribution of stratospheric ozone, particularly in the Arctic. These data are making an important contribution to international environmental policy-making aimed at protecting the ozone layer, such as the Montreal Protocol that bans certain CFCs.

Canada's SCISAT during testing at the Canadian Space Agency's David Florida Laboratory (DFL) in Ottawa, Ontario. Its mission is to measure and study the chemical processes that control the distribution of ozone in the Earth's atmosphere. (Credit: Communications Research Center Canada)

SCISAT observations are also helping scientists better understand the effects of atmospheric chemistry, clouds and small particles (such as aerosols) on Earth's climate.

ACE measures the absorption of solar light by the atmosphere at sunrise and sunset. Different atmospheric constituents absorb different wavelengths of light in characteristic ways—a signature by which they can be identified. This technique is what allows ACE to make extremely accurate measurements.

The trade-off for this precision is that SCISAT takes measurements in a limited number of locations. Other satellites do provide more global coverage, but their data are not as accurate. "That's why there's great value in combining the two," said Bernath.

Moving beyond ozone depletion: Climate change and air pollution

Credit: Canadian Space Agency

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of infographics SCISAT: 329 data users around the world

SCISAT: 329 data users around the world – Infographic

The infographic features a world map showing the number of SCISAT data users. SCISAT is a small Canadian satellite that monitors ozone in the stratosphere and helps scientists improve their understanding of ozone depletion. It provides data to academia, space agencies, governmental and scientific organizations around the world.

On the map, there is a circle for each country that has data users. Inside each circle is the name of the country and its number of users registered through the Canadian University of Waterloo data portal.

  • Canada: 104
  • United States: 91
  • Argentina: 1
  • United Kingdom: 20
  • Ireland: 1
  • Netherlands: 1
  • Belgium: 11
  • Spain: 3
  • France: 14
  • Switzerland: 1
  • Italy: 5
  • Poland: 4
  • Germany: 30
  • Finland: 2
  • Sweden: 10
  • Russia: 2
  • Japan: 18
  • China: 2
  • India: 1
  • Australia: 5
  • New Zealand: 2

With its instrument performing so well, SCISAT is now moving beyond its original mandate and providing excellent data related not only to ozone depletion, but also to climate change, and air quality and pollution. "There are many things we're doing now that we really didn't know we could do," Bernath said.

ACE has been used to measure the distribution of several molecules correlated with air pollution and biomass burning, providing data that complements the observations of the MOPITT satellite. "Together, they give you a picture of what's going on, and it's not a good picture. A lot of pollution that come from industrial activity travels all over the globe," Bernath noted.

ACE observations are also useful in climate studies. For example, they've shown that previously observed increases in the amount of water vapour being injected into the stratosphere have stopped. Water vapour is the most powerful natural greenhouse gas and plays a key role in the Earth's climate. "No one knew why it was increasing and we don't know why it stopped, so there are quite a few mysteries left," said Bernath.

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