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Amy Chaffins, Forum News Service, Published August 01 2013

Osakis is key in measuring ‘space weather’

OSAKIS, Minn. – Next time you look to the stars, consider this: Osakis is key in what scientists are learning about space.

A farm east of Osakis houses scientific equipment that gathers data on the weather in space.

The equipment is used as part of a project called Canadian Array for Realtime Investigations of Magnetic Activity, or CARISMA, led by professor David Milling at the University of Alberta in Canada.

Judi and Gregg Anderson, of Osakis, partnered with Milling and offered up a corner of their pole barn to host the university’s big black box. Inside is a laptop computer and transmission gadgetry.

The equipment includes magnetic field sensors called magnetometers.

The magnetometer takes measurements of the Earth’s magnetic field eight times per second and transmits them back to Edmonton, Alberta, where the data is processed.

Measuring ‘space weather’ and more

According to Milling, changes in the sun’s activity can cause disturbances in the space environment around the Earth and drive what’s referred to as “space weather.”

By measuring small changes in the Earth’s magnetic field associated with these disturbances, scientists can figure out how the space weather system works.

There are two well-known phenomena scientists are particularly interested in: the northern lights and Van Allen radiation belts.

“Apart from the intrinsic scientific interest in understanding how the earth’s space environment responds to solar influences, there are practical applications in protecting our technological assets in space (e.g. communications and global positioning system satellites; the International Space System) and on the ground (e.g., power systems that can be damaged during the largest solar storms). The more we understand the basic science, the better we will be able to forecast potentially damaging events and provide advance warnings,” Milling said in an email.

CARISMA is the magnetometer element of the Canadian Geospace Monitoring project. Data from CARISMA has reportedly been used in more than 160 scientific publications.

Why Osakis?

How in the world was Osakis chosen as one of the sites for the CARISMA project?

Well, the same reason people live and vacation here: its location, along with the area’s tranquil setting and small-town hospitality.

Judi Anderson is an employee at Alexandria Technical and Community College and about 10 years ago, she said, the UofA reached out to the college indicating it was looking for a site to host the magnetometers. However, vibrations from the nearby interstate disqualified the college. At that point, Anderson offered up her farm place in rural Osakis.

The crew from UofA visited, set up the equipment, and they’ve been in partnership for about 11 years, Anderson said.

“What’s interesting to me is that (Osakis) is part of a global perspective on this,” Anderson said.

Milling said, “If you look at the map on our website, you will see that Osakis is at the end of a long line of sites stretching from the Canadian Arctic down through Manitoba and into Minnesota. This line allows us to study a range of different phenomena from the active auroral zone in the north to the heart of the radiation belts further south at Osakis.”

Just as important, Milling added, “Judi and Gregg were very welcoming and gracious in allowing us to site our equipment on their land and have been willing helpers in running out to push buttons when we have had computer problems. Projects such as ours just couldn’t succeed without the help of great people like them.”

Anderson said over the years, she’s had to go out and check the box a few times to be sure an extension cord hasn’t been unplugged or a breaker didn’t blow. Overall, she said it’s all been an interesting experience.

Milling and other staff visit Osakis a couple of times a year to update and check out the equipment.

Anderson said that over the years, she and her husband have become friends with Milling and his staff. In fact, the Andersons are planning a road trip to Alaska, and they’ll make it a point to stop by the UofA to visit Milling and check out the lab where the research and data are processed.

Passion for the stars

When asked what drives his passion for this type of research, Milling said, “I like the fact that we are able to remote sense things happening out in space from the ground and that what is apparently empty space is, in fact, an amazingly dynamic and complex environment. Although the effects are largely invisible to our eyes, when a large solar storm does occur and we stand right underneath a dazzling display of northern lights, we can get some idea of the powerful interactions taking place above us while simply enjoying and being wowed by one of nature’s most amazing spectacles.”

Osakis is one of 27 field station sites in the CARISMA network. Some of the other locations are Thief River Falls, Minn.; Contwoyto, Nunavut Territory, Canada; Wells Gray, British Columbia; Rabbit Lake, Sask.; Norman Wells, Northwest Territories; and Fort McMurray, Alberta.