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Lights, cameras... science

Kevin Allerston
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (July 27/05) - The Canadian Space Agency and America's National Aeronautic and Space Agency (NASA) are heading an ambitious project that may dispel some of the mystery of one of the North's most famous attractions.

The Themis project will see 16 ground-based observatories installed across Canada's North and four in Alaska to photograph the aurora borealis.

Northern communities where cameras will be placed include Fort Simpson, Fort Smith, Rankin Inlet, Inuvik and Whitehorse. The cameras are to be installed by October 2006.

The cameras are a part of a $180 million U.S. mission that will also send five satellites into orbit by autumn 2006 to photograph the aurora from space.

Each observatory will consist of a white-light, all-sky camera and support equipment. They will take pictures every five seconds over the projectOs two-years - about 84 million pictures. Images will be sent via Internet to researchers for further study.

Scientists from the University of Calgary and the University of California explained some of the details recently to audiences in Yellowknife, Whitehorse and Iqaluit.

"By understanding how the aurora is erupting and how the solar energy is processed by the magnetosphere, we are able to understand better when this is going to happen," said Dr. Vassilis Angelopoulos of the University of California at Berkeley.

The information provided by the project will be of interest to parts of Yellowknife's tourism industry.

Sage Suzuki is general manager of Canadian Ex Aurora Tours. Being able to predict the Northern Lights for him is a mixed bag.

"If we know what time the lights will be best, it is more easy to inform tourists, but if I said 'tonight, sorry, nothing,' that would be really hard to say," said Suzuki.

The project has other practical purposes as well. Strong auroral storms can cause power outages and interfere with satellites. By better understanding the aurora, perhaps some of these problems can be prevented, the scientists say.