Saskatchewan scientist becomes first Canadian to win fellowship in UK’s Royal Astronomical Society

Last fall, the sun spewed a violent mass of fast-moving plasma into space that came crashing into the planet’s magnetosphere, igniting the sky with shimmering coils of dramatic colour – a light show we know as the Aurora Borealis. And as lovely as the sight was, the event could have been far worse. In 1989, a similar geomagnetic storm caused the Hydro-Quebec power grid to fail, leaving millions in the province without power for nine hours.
That’s where researchers like Kathryn McWilliams at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) come in. McWilliams is an international expert in the dynamics of field-aligned currents that link the solar wind, magnetosphere, and ionosphere — the bubble that protects the Earth from direct impact by the solar wind. She’ll tell you that our technologically driven world is vulnerable to what happens in near-Earth space environments, so it’s important to keep tabs on what’s happening above and in the atmosphere.
She’s also the director of the Super Dual Auroral Radar Network (SuperDARN) Canada, the Canadian arm of an international project that uses high-frequency radars in the northern and southern hemispheres to study Earth’s upper atmosphere. She recently made headlines as the first Canadian to have been awarded an honorary fellowship from the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) of the United Kingdom.
The RAS awards honorary fellowships to scientists living outside the U.K. who are eminent in the fields of astronomy or geophysics. McWilliams said she feels “humbled and honoured” to receive the award.
In its announcement on Jan. 14, 2022, the RAS acknowledged McWilliams as an international expert in the dynamics of field-aligned currents that link the solar wind, magnetosphere and ionosphere.
“We are trying to understand all the processes involved in creating the aurora. Like the weather maps that we see in the news, SuperDARN provides a vast scan every minute of the electrical voltage in the atmosphere not too far below the altitude of the International Space Station’s orbit,” said McWilliams, for whom the RAS recognition was both humbling and an honour.
SuperDARN is on a mission to study plasma near Earth as well as the Sun-Earth space system. The radar network studies how plasma interacts with the Earth’s atmosphere and geospace environment, as well as its effects on planetary infrastructure in the fields of communications, energy, and transportation.
As the head of SuperDARN Canada, McWilliams has led the development of a new radar system called Borealis that improves the capability and flexibility of the project’s radar stations. The new radars are already operating in Canada, while two international SuperDARN partners have begun upgrading to the Borealis system.
SuperDARN Canada is based at USask’s Institute of Space and Atmospheric Studies. It’s part of the Canadian Space Agency’s national scientific program, Geospace Observatory Canada, and supports Canadian satellite missions. It’s a critical function, given that satellites represent a significant sector of Canada’s economy, worth billions of dollars in revenue for the telecommunications industry alone.
The first tenured female faculty member in the Department of Physics and Engineering Physics at USask, McWilliams has dedicated most of her career to the SuperDARN project. She first became involved with SuperDARN Canada as a summer student in 1992, when she helped build the first radar site east of Saskatoon.
“I find magnetospheric research very interesting. Understanding how conditions in space connect with conditions in our atmosphere and even down to ground level is a very complex problem to solve,” she explains.
The highly sophisticated radars are synchronized to scan together, allowing researchers to monitor space weather conditions in the Earth’s magnetosphere. Changes in the speed and density of the solar wind, as well as the direction of the interplanetary magnetic field, affect the motion of charged particles in the Earth’s magnetosphere and ionosphere.
Located in Saskatchewan, Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Ontario, the Canadian network of radar stations provide coverage of the High Arctic. Canada has the largest land mass under the auroral oval (an oval shaped region around the geomagnetic pole where the aurora most commonly occurs), making the country an ideal place to study interactions between the sun and Earth.
The 35 radars are high-frequency coherent scatter radars, used to study field-aligned ionospheric irregularities. This means that all of the SuperDARN radars send out radio waves, which then bounce off the ionosphere and return to be read by the radar. This is the same process by which you can hear radio in your car, except that these radars bounce off irregularities which signal changes to the density of the ionosphere.
When the radio wave is returned back to the radar, the information it carries can tell how fast the irregularity coming towards or away from the radar. Much like a weather map, when all the radars overlap their data, researchers can build a picture of how the ionosphere is moving as a whole in the polar regions. This data is then used to study the effects of solar wind on Earth’s ionosphere, which in turn will lead to developing protection and prediction of space weather.

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