Apr 16, 2015

Western researchers tasked with mapping Canadian Arctic from space

By Chris Montanini, Londoner. Researchers at Western University, in partnership with the Canadian Space Agency, are included in a two-year $700,000 grant being spent on developing innovative uses for Canada’s world-renowned Earth observation satellite, RADARSAT-2.

Estimated Article Reading Time: 3 min.

The Science and Operational Applications Research program (SOAR), a partnership between the satellite’s builders, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., the Canadian government and Natural Resources Canada’s Centre for Remote Sensing, announced the grant in March. It also includes projects being helmed by researchers at the University of Guelph, the University of Waterloo and Carelton University.

Western’s contribution comes from its Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX), which will attempt to use RADARSAT-2 data to improve geological mapping and resource exploration in the Canadian Arctic.

Dr. Gordon Osinski, an associate professor at Western and CPSX’s acting director, said current knowledge of arctic geology is poor in detail. RADARSAT-2, which has an advantage over other imaging satellites because its radar technology can see through weather, will make mapping the Canadian Arctic more precisely a less daunting task than it would be otherwise.

“In a nutshell, the Arctic’s big, there’s no way we’re ever going to map it like we used to, which is people on the ground walking over literally every square kilometre,” Osinski said.

Instead, satellite images will create what Osinski called a “predictive map.” Researchers will then verify the map on the ground, which Osinski explained takes much less time and man power.

RADARSAT-2 is already being used to track vessels and ice distribution in the Canadian Arctic and could prove versatile enough for other uses, Osinski continued, including mineral exploration and recording environmental change.

“For this grant we’re focused on the geological mapping but we’ll be looking at a lot of these other areas too,” he said. “We’re looking at using the radar data to look at soil moisture. You can imagine doing that on an annual basis, looking at how that’s changed, how ground ice distribution is changing, (and) how ice, glaciers and ice caps are changing. (RADARSAT-2 is a) very versatile instrument and there’re lots of potential avenues for future work.”

Osinski, a planetary geologist, isn’t a stranger to the Canadian Arctic. In 2012, he travelled to Victoria Island to confirm the existence of an impact crater and study its size and age. He said it’s also one of the sites his team will be looking at with RADARSAT-2.

“Many people look at the CPSX at Western and may immediately think we just study the moon and Mars and other planets, but we study the Earth too using space-based imagery and assets,” Osinski said.

As its name implies, RADARSAT-2 is the second Canadian Earth observation satellite that’s been sent into orbit. According to the Canadian Space Agency, it has collected more than 30,000 images per year since it was launched in Dec. 2007.

RADARSAT-2’s predecessor, RADARSAT-1, was launched in Nov. 1995 but is no longer collecting data.

The future of RADARSAT is already in development and is expected to be ready by 2018. Plans include a constellation of three satellites (with the potential for six in total) that will provide complete coverage of Canada’s land and oceans, “as well as daily access to 95 per cent of the world to Canadian and International users,” according to the Canadian Space Agency website.

The satellites have national security implications as well, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper lauding the technology in the past and even saving it from spending cutbacks in 2012.

Space Day at Western

Western celebrated its contributions to Canada’s space program April 13 by honouring John H. Chapman, a native Londoner and Western graduate best known for leading the development and launch of the Alouette satellite in 1962.

The satellite represented the first Canadian technology is space. The headquarters of the Canadian Space Agency and the most prestigious space award in Canada are also named in Chapman’s honour.

Chris.montanini@sunmedia.ca
Twitter: @LondonerChris

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