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SMILE: Canada to play key role in first-ever mission to observe the chain of events behind space weather

Launch: November
Mission duration: 3 to 5 years
Mission status: In development

Space weather can affect the performance of critical technologies both in space and on Earth, resulting in substantial economic impacts. Severe space weather events can disrupt radio communications and satellite navigation signals, damage electrical infrastructure on the ground and satellites in space, and even endanger transpolar air travel. For example, in , space weather was responsible for taking out the entire Quebec power grid for nine hours. The blackout closed schools and businesses, shut down the Montreal metro system during morning rush hour, and paralyzed airports across the province.

The European Space Agency (ESA) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) have joined forces to lead the Solar wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer (SMILE) satellite mission, which will enable the first-ever observations of the chain of events that drives space weather. Canada will be contributing the UltraViolet Imager (UVI), one of the satellite's instruments.

Geomagnetic storms can influence satellite navigation and radio communications – both critical for airplane flights. When a significant solar storm hits our planet, airlines can divert or cancel flights to ensure safety. (Credits: Canadian Space Agency, NASA.)


Canada and space weather

Understanding and predicting space weather is of particular importance to Canada, as our northern location makes us one of the countries most affected by space weather. In fact, Canada is the country with the largest landmass under aurora, the most visible manifestation of space weather. This has motivated decades of research aimed at understanding the space environment above Earth and has resulted in Canada developing world-class expertise in remotely sensing the region where the auroras occur.

Canada has undertaken space weather research since the beginning of the space age, starting with Alouette, Canada's first satellite, launched in . This research continues as Canada's growing dependence on space systems and other technological infrastructure and services makes us increasingly vulnerable to space weather. The Canadian-led UVI instrument on SMILE is a natural fit with our scientific and engineering expertise.

Canada's role in the mission

SMILE will carry four instruments: the Canadian-led UltraViolet Imager (UVI), an imager from the United Kingdom (UK), and two instruments from China. The UVI will observe the auroras over the entire northern hemisphere, even during daytime, for 40 hours at a time.

As the Sun burns, it continually blows a hot ionized and magnetized gas into space called the solar wind. As the solar wind streams past Earth, it strikes Earth's magnetosphere, its protective force field, and causes space weather that can harm spacecraft and astronauts in space as well as infrastructure on the ground. The two Chinese instruments will monitor the ever-changing solar wind at the same time as the two imagers observe its impact, making SMILE the first mission to simultaneously accomplish those tasks.

This illustration shows what will be observed by the UK's X-ray imager and Canada's UVI. (Credits: CSA, ESA, NASA, UCL)

Text version - on the graphic about SMILE Innovation

SMILE Innovation

SMILE is the first mission to remote sense the chain of events that generate space weather (cause + effect) in a global manner

Canada's UVI observes the magnetosphere's reaction

UK's X-ray imager observes solar wind energy injection

A Soft X-ray Instrument (SXI), contributed to the mission by the UK, will observe the X-rays emitted where the solar wind and the outermost fringes of Earth's atmosphere collide. At the same time, the Canadian-led UVI will observe the auroras above the entire northern hemisphere, even on the sunlit side of Earth. The ultraviolet images of the auroras will reveal how the disturbances seen in the distant magnetosphere by SXI are transformed into the beautiful and sometimes disruptive auroras we see in Canadian skies. These two complementary observations will permit new science, unlocking knowledge about how our magnetosphere works. That knowledge will help improve our ability to forecast the impacts of space weather on the space- and ground-based high-technology infrastructure that our society relies on.

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