A research team from the University of Calgary has received $250,000 in funding from the Canadian Space Agency to look into the fallout from high-energy particles in the skies above Canada.

The funding will be used by the team to develop a flight instrument to help researchers understand the changing aspects of the radiation field which satellites travel through and why the high-energy particles that make up that radiation environment collide with the upper atmosphere.

Assistant professor Christopher Cully from the Faculty of Science will lead a team of researchers from the University of Calgary, University of Washington and Dartmouth College to create the in-flight experiment.

"We know that the radiation environment changes rapidly and dramatically, but there is a gap in our knowledge about exactly why the high-energy particles sometimes disappear from the radiation belts: do they mostly rain down into the atmosphere, are they released into the solar wind, or do they lose their energy and become low-energy particles? What drives that process?" said Cully.

The two zones, called the Van Allen radiation belts, encircle the earth; one band is centered on the magnetic North Pole, which crosses Canada, Russia and Scandinavia, and the other is centered on the magnetic South Pole, which crosses Antarctica.

Fast-moving, charged particles, mostly protons and electrons, are trapped within the belts by the earth’s magnetic field and scientists believe most of them come from the solar wind.

Cully’s team will launch three high-altitude stratospheric balloons in 2016 to get a better understanding of how these particles can be monitored from the ground.

The balloons are made out of ultra-thin plastic and will carry detectors to capture X-rays from the upper atmosphere, a tell-tale sign of precipitating high-energy electrons.

Very Low Frequency radio receivers will also be placed on the balloons and deployed in an array across the prairies to observe the electromagnetic waves that cause the particle rain.

"Canada's geographic position, combined with ground-based instruments supported by the CSA and other agencies, affords us the opportunity to take a lead in understanding energetic electron precipitation, both in terms of its effects on the radiation belts and also its effect on the atmosphere over Canada," said Cully.

"The University of Calgary has world-class space heritage, both in terms of space missions and sounding rockets, and ground-based space physics observations," says Eric Donovan, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and co-chair for the New Earth-Space Technologies (NEST) research theme at the University of Calgary. "Balloons are an attractive low-cost platform that can connect the research and technology development in these two areas, creating a pathway for ground-based research to reach space.”

The U of C says the funding will also be used for graduate students to gain hands-on experience in designing, building, testing and flying scientific instruments and technologies on high-altitude balloons, sounding rockets or nanosatellites and analyzing the resulting data.