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Saskatchewan researchers lead NASA project to measure aerosols in the upper atmosphere

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Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) are hard at work on a project that will help measure aerosols and clouds from space.

It's a partnership between the Canadian space agency, NASA, Environment Canada, the National Research Council and 14 universities.

“The HAWC project, which stands for high altitude water vapor and cloud program, comprises three different elements,” said Jeremy Harrison, minister responsible for Innovation Saskatchewan.

“Two of which are being led by our team here at the University of Saskatchewan.”

The two instruments being developed locally are a satellite imager for aerosol profiling called the ALI, and an imager for water vapour called SHOW.

“The two pieces out of the three which are going to be conceived and built at the University of Saskatchewan are going to help us in determining how much moisture is up in the air,” said Baljit Singh, vice-president of research at the University of Saskatchewan. “That has implications for forest fires, for drought, for really doing forecasting to the farmers as to where they can put crops into the ground.”

Using these instruments, the HAWC mission will be able to scan and measure clouds from space.

That will provide data for scientists to interpret and understand extreme weather, climate modelling and disaster monitoring.

“The scattering of the light actually allows us to figure out from these measurements what type of aerosol and how much of that aerosol we're looking at,” said Doug Degenstein, one of the project leads on the HAWC mission.

“So is it smoke, is it sulfate, is it ice crystal? And all of those have different impacts on our atmosphere, the processes and the long term climate.”

While the payload isn’t set to launch until 2031, the process to get to this point has been about 15 years in the making.

“This one here is I think the third generation of our ALI,” said Degenstein.

“And the very first one was Adam [Bourassa] and a graduate student and just a handful of dollars just for the very first prototype. That probably flew in 2014, so that was ten years ago. The development of it started three or four years before that, but the ideas started even before that.”

Innovation Saskatchewan is providing $600,000 over three years for the HAWC mission. The money comes from the Innovation and Science Fund.

Singh says the U of S has recently surpassed the $400 million dollar mark for research grants.

“Bringing in nationally competitive funding speaks to this university at multiple levels,” said Singh.

“It speaks to the type of talent that this university brings into the province. Number two, with that funding we develop technologies, from new crop varieties to measuring climate change; new health science technologies are developed through that funding. That funding allows us to bring in about 4,000 graduate students who are advanced science and innovation students in the province.” 

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