UNB researchers reaching new heights with NASA observation mission

A prototype for the spatial heterodyne observations of water (SHOW) instrument, which will help researchers understand the interactions between water vapour, aerosols and clouds.  (Submitted by Jeffery Langille - image credit)
A prototype for the spatial heterodyne observations of water (SHOW) instrument, which will help researchers understand the interactions between water vapour, aerosols and clouds. (Submitted by Jeffery Langille - image credit)

"A once-in-a-decade event" is how Jeffery Langille describes the University of New Brunswick's lead role in a NASA mission.

Langille is the lead instrument scientist for the spatial heterodyne observations of water, also known as the SHOW instrument. It's one of three specialized instruments that are part of the high-altitude aerosol, water vapour, and clouds, or HAWC, instrumentation.

HAWC will be deployed as part of NASA's Atmosphere Observing System mission.

The Canadian government announced this month that it would spend more than $200 million on the HAWC instrument, a project that includes researchers from 13 Canadian universities.

Langille said HAWC will measure the effects of climate change and then use that data to build better models to predict future change and extreme weather events.

He said it feels "absolutely awesome" to be involved with the project.

"Being able to see something that I've worked on with my own hands, you know, moving towards being something that gets launched into space is a really rewarding experience," said Langille.

Submitted by Jeremy Elder-Jubelin
Submitted by Jeremy Elder-Jubelin

The SHOW instrumentation, which Langille is working on, will help researchers understand the interaction between water vapour, clouds and aerosols, he said.

Langille said the challenge is that this interaction isn't being adequately picked up by current sensors.

The SHOW instrument will observe emissions from water vapour, while the two other instruments that are part of HAWC will observe aerosol and cloud processes.

An opportunity for future space missions for UNB

Since the project isn't scheduled to launch until 2031, Langille said there's a development timeline they will go through over the next several years where they can develop instruments and lab facilities as well as train students, post-docs and scientists at UNB.

Langille said this particular project started as a concept in a lab at York University 20 years ago.

William Ward, the co-principal investigator for SHOW and a professor in the physics department at UNB, said the observations from SHOW will be the highest resolution satellite observations ever obtained for this process.

Ward said Langille was one of his graduate students who he recommended to do a post-doctorate at the University of Saskatchewan, one of the co-leaders for HAWC. So when Ward was contacted to be part of the university consortium and Langille was coming back to UNB, Ward said it was a natural position for him to fill.

Submitted by Jeremy Elder-Jubelin
Submitted by Jeremy Elder-Jubelin

"Earth observation" is a specific term for observations of the atmosphere on the surface, said Ward, and this is the first time that UNB has had a lead role in an earth observation mission.

Ward said this opens up an opportunity for UNB to be involved in more space missions in the future. He said it also allows people at UNB to start familiarizing themselves with the process of getting instrumentation into space.

"I think in the near future, access to space will become more available," said Ward. "And if we have the tools to participate in that at UNB, I think it's an excellent opportunity to develop that and then potentially for industrial partners in the province to get involved with that, too."