$25 million science station
Americans will probably build it to study Aurora

by Chris Meyers Almey
Northern News Services

NNSL (Apr 07/97) - The North is poised to become a major centre of Northern Lights research because of the havoc the phenomenon causes.

The U.S. government is considering building a $25-million radar observatory in Resolute that will study the aurora displays.

Meanwhile, a rocket tracking station is planned for Chesterfield Inlet.

The rockets would be launched from Churchill, Man., and be tracked from the Keewatin region as they carry their satellite payloads into low polar orbits about the Earth.

The significance of studying the Aurora Borealis is highlighted by the fact they are blamed for the recent write-off of a $300 million communications satellite.

What the Canadian Space Agency's Terry Hughes calls a "whopping big" aurora is also responsible knocking out the power grid in Quebec in the late 1980s, thrusting the province into darkness.

The Northern Lights also induce powerful electrical charges in oil and gas pipelines, causing corrosion and shorten their lifespans.

According to Hughes, the aurora produce a million amperes of electricity, while the average household uses just 15 amperes an hour.

Hughes said that the American scientists want the ability to warn satellite operators of impending aurora surges, giving them time to shut down sensitive equipment.

Hughes and Bob Robinson of the U.S. National Science Foundation met with officials and residents of Resolute last week to explain the radar observatory project.

It has been planned since 1988 and U.S. President Bill Clinton has asked Congress for the money to build it.

Hughes said the Americans are seriously interested in the project and everybody is "99.99 per cent certain" the Congress will fund the project.

An accord between Canada and the U.S. dealing with all aspects of the observatory is expected to be signed within the next three months.

The primary contractor would be American, but Nunavut companies and Inuit workers would build it.

Canadian scientists would also be able to use the facility, Hughes added.

The Chesterfield Inlet project involves several large spherical antennae, arranged in a straight line across the tundra and spaced several hundred metres apart.

The tracking system would collect signals from rockets launched in Churchill and if things went wrong, self-destruct instructions would be sent from the Chesterfield station.

Akjuit Aerospace Inc., the private company developing the Churchill launch site, will use Russian rockets to send satellites into orbits between 200 and 1,000 high.

The satellites would enhance voice communications and be used by paging services, transportation companies and for the transfer of data.