USask lands $600K from province for NASA environmental science mission

A national team of researchers, co-led by a team of scientists from the University of Saskatchewan, has received $600,000 from the province to further a project destined for a NASA mission.

USask, alongside federal agencies, is the head of a 14-university consortium working on a project supporting the High-altitude Aerosol, Water Vapor and Cloud (HAWC) satellite mission.

In simple terms, the HAWC mission consists of different climate science satellite instruments designed to predict extreme weather and monitor for disasters. It is also meant to replace older systems and provide new data scientists need to understand the factors contributing to climate change.

HAWC is the Canadian contribution to the Atmosphere Observing System (AOS) mission led by NASA and expected to launch in 2031, according to a Monday news release from Innovation Saskatchewan and the University of Saskatchewan.

Co-project lead and physics Prof. Doug Degenstein said the research team builds optical instruments that are "basically fancy cameras."

"Well, very, very, very fancy, very not-cheap cameras," he said.

Degenstein motioned to a piece of equipment that measures light from the atmosphere after it has bounced off airborne aerosols to determine the type of aerosol and how much of it is present.

From there, scientists can learn whether the aerosol is smoke, ice crystals or other particles that affect the atmosphere and long-term climate differently.

"The HAWC project highlights the contribution that USask is making in combating climate change on a global scale," said Peter Stoicheff, University of Saskatchewan president.

The Aerosol Limb Imager (ALI) is a satellite imager for aerosol profiling and one of the three components a part of the HAWC project.
The aerosol limb imager (ALI) is a satellite imager for aerosol profiling and one of the three components of the HAWC project. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Two of the three satellite instruments for HAWC were designed at the University of Saskatchewan, according to the news release. Degenstein says those instruments have been in development for about 15 years.

The Saskatchewan government will provide the project funding over the next three years.

"We really are leaders in space technology, and this is a very real example of it," said Jeremy Harrison, minister responsible for innovation Saskatchewan.

The provincial money comes from its Innovation and Science Fund, which matches federal innovation funding investments for projects from Saskatchewan's universities, colleges and research institutes.