Seeing the light

(Edmonton) A high-school student who once thought the northern lights were boring has made a 180-degree turn on her opinion of the spectacular cosmic light show, thanks to a special science program at the University of Alberta.

Victoria Hessdorfer, a Grade 11 student from Beaumont, was thrown into the deep end of northern lights research when she started a six-week summer camp sponsored by the University of Alberta, called the Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science and Technology summer research program.  

The program assigned 60 Alberta high-school students, (58 girls and two boys) to a wide variety of U of A research projects. Hessdorfer joined the university’s experienced space physics investigators looking at the space-storm phenomenon known as the Aurora Borealis—the northern lights.

“My mom would say, ‘look how gorgeous the northern lights are tonight,’ and I’d roll my eyes,” said Hessdorfer. “But back then I didn’t understand the light started with solar storms so far from Earth. Physics really is fantastic science.” 

Hessdorfer spent the last six weeks pouring over data collected by ground stations across the North and satellites that monitor electrical disturbances in Earth’s upper atmosphere. 

Using computer programs Hessdorfer analyzed incoming data in hopes of identifying an initial northern lights disturbance at the beginning of space weather storms. “We see the result of these solar explosions colliding with Earth’s magnetic field as drama beyond Earth’s atmosphere, which might signal that a space storm is developing on Earth,” said Hessdorfer.

The U of A is a co-investigator institution in this effort to study space storms using ground stations and NASA’s five THEMIS satellites patrolling outer space.

On Tuesday, Hessdorfer and the other high-school students in the WISEST summer-research program displayed poster presentations of their work for family, U of A faculty and a group of municipal, provincial and federal politicians.

Although Hessdorfer’s six weeks of hard work hasn’t yet produced any definite breakthroughs, but she feels she has made a real contribution. “I definitely want to pursue studies in physics, maybe space studies or particle physics, but it will be physics for sure,” said Hessdorfer.

To watch a YouTube video on how the northern lights are created, click here.

What you will see is the Earth's magnetic field becoming stretched into a bullet-shaped cavity by the solar wind that blows out of the Sun. When the Earth's magnetic field can stretch no more, it "snaps" and rockets particles towards Earth causing a substorm, which is can be seen in more northern latitudes as the Aurora Borealis, or the northern lights. WISEST summer student Victoria Hesdorffer spent her summer trying to understand what triggers this snapping of the field line, which has been a hot topic in space physics since the early 1960s.