Cutlass slashes mystique of Northern Lights

May 31, 1996

The secrets of the Northern Lights, that curious, spectacular light show in the northern hemisphere, could soon be revealed thanks to Pounds 1 million study by scientists at Leicester University.

Their work will involve a twin radar system, called Cutlass, specially designed by the radio and space plasma physics group at Leicester. One of the radars will be based in Finland and the other in Iceland.

Leicester scientists believe the project could lead to new insights into a phenomena that can place astronauts in peril, disrupt satellite and communication systems, and cause damage to ground-based power supply networks.

In 1989, for instance, the province of Quebec lost most of its electricity when the activity of the lights burnt out power transmitters.

The Northern Lights or aurora borealis are caused by energetic electrons bursting out from the sun and then colliding with neutral gases in the atmosphere.

But Christopher Thomas, Cutlass's project manager said that it is not at all clear how these energetic particles traverse the magnetic field in order to arrive at the region where the Northern Lights occur.

A major task for the project, which is backed by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, is to solve this puzzle.

The radars will provide scientists with the most powerful ground-based tools available to space scientists for monitoring the behaviour of the earth's upper atmosphere.

They will be used as a national facility with data being accessed automatically from the Arctic sites by computers at Leicester University.

Cutlass radars will be operated in conjunction with a billion-dollar, four- satellite international space mission called Cluster which will provide direct measurements of the solar wind and the magnetosphere directly from space.

The magnetosphere is the region surrounding the earth in which the behaviour of charged particles is dominated by the earth's magnetic field.

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