Earth glides innocently through space at about 19 miles per second, 93 million miles from the Sun in its orbit. A thin atmosphere and weak magnetic field protect Earth’s inhabitants from charged particles, radiation, and debris, keeping them relatively safe from the utter chaos of gamma rays and debris that is the nature of space. Despite the shielding of our upper atmosphere, solar winds and ejections of mass and energy are often enough to disturb Earth’s magnetic field. Most people are familiar with the Northern and Southern lights, which are beautifully colored phenomena consequent of solar ejections. There are numerous other effects of space weather on Earth you may not be as familiar with: damage of satellites, disruption of power grids and electrical systems, and cell phone/radio interference.
These distortions are due to a strong ionospheric reaction to Solar winds. The ionosphere is a layer of the Earth’s atmosphere, about 56 miles above the surface of the planet, directly above the mesosphere. Continuously blasted with matter and energy from the sun, this plasma is chaotic and ravaged, with electrons buzzing around freely.
It is also responsible for the propagation of radio signals on Earth. Radio waves are electromagnetic radiation, similar to the visible light your eyes can perceive, only at a much lower frequency, with longer wavelengths. When you use your cell phone, radio, or TV, you are utilizing radio signals. Radio signals constantly deflect off the ionosphere. This allows them to be picked up far away from where they were produced. Society is quite reliant on radio technology, and therefore we are vulnerable to space weather, which interacts with our abilities to propagate good signal through its effect on the ionosphere.
Ionospheric activity disturbs the US Navy’s VLF (very low frequency) stations. The Navy uses these stations to communicate with submarines, and have a great number of them throughout the world. This is a convienience for amatuer astronomers, who can pick up Navy VLF signals as they bounce off the ionosphere. Through distortions in this data, one can interpret solar activity. This provides an easy means of solar flare tracking. That’s where the amatuer astronomers over at SMCC-ACE come in.
SMCC-ACE is currently involved in a project through Stanford’s SOLAR center, known as SuperSID. SID stands for Sudden Ionospheric Disturbance Monitor. In essence, it’s a combination of a large antennae with a radio adaptor capable of tuning into VLF stations.
The telescope came into existence on a stormy Sunday, although it had been the topic of discussion and research amongst SMCC’s astronomy devotees for about a couple of months. One student in particular, James Messina, took extraordinary initiative in establishing this program, including researching the mechanics of recording ionospheric interference, designing the telescope, and finally building it with the help of David Plouff and your correspondent.
James said the ionospheric research first caught his interest at the beginning of the Fall 2015 semester, when professor Kevin Kimball presented the prospect of starting an astronomy research project here at SMCC. The idea developed further when his class, along with some astronomy class alumni, took a trip over to the USM planetarium to meet with Jon Wallace, the president of the Society of Amatuer Radio Astronomers. He explained many beginner research projects to the group, as well as demonstrated a variety of his own custom built research tools and some projects he had devised.
James recalls, “Radio astronomy was not initially incredibly exciting. Instead of pretty stars and nebulae, you get some pretty points on a graph. But his presentation put into perspective that this work was not too difficult.” Wallace broke down the SuperSID project, which according to James “really stood out due to its tangibility. It is a low cost, low maintenance, long term group project that I thought could really fill the need for a baseline research project for the SMCC Astronomy Department.”
Even more exciting to James was the impact this could have on the lives of students. He expressed his excitement in getting people involved, and giving students the availability to gain some exposure to real world science.
“The SuperSID is a great project to get your hands dirty in your first research project. The units are cheap and assembling them and getting them operational is quite an experience. Contributing to global ionospheric research also looks pretty great on a resume. Beyond this, the SuperSID program here at SMCC is only a stepping stone. I hope in the future it can be one of the many ongoing research projects within the SMCC astronomy department, continuing to enrich the student experience within the program, and adding more value to SMCC as a whole.”
There is good reason to be enthusiastic about SMCC students gaining exposure to radio astronomy. This is just one project in a bustling field of extraordinary cosmic discovery. Through radio astronomy, we can discover exciting new things about our universe that are otherwise invisible. This is like opening the door to an entire universe of new phenomena to explore. Some of the greatest discoveries of the century came about through radio astronomy.
In 1967, Jocelyn Bell, an Irish astrophysicist, accidentally discovered pulsars (incredibly fast spinning stars made from the remains of a collapsed supernova) while working as a postgraduate studying the radio emissions of quasars. She noticed an anomalous twinkling in the data, and later discerned its cause. Her male supervisor, Anthony Hewish, and his senior colleague, Martin Ryle, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Bell’s discovery. Her exclusion from the award could be due to the fact that she was a 24 year old graduate student, or just as likely that she was a women scientist in the ‘60s.
Bob Dicke, American physicist who made great contributions to the fields of astrophysics, cosmology, radio astronomy, heliophysics, and more, predicted the existence of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), radiation left over from the Big Bang, around 1950. He sought out the discover it, but was beat to it by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, two radio astronomers at Bell Labs, in the early ‘60s. They initially thought the steady buzzing of the CMB was due to pigeon droppings inside their telescope. They eventually figured out they had actually discovered incredible substantiation of the Big Bang theory.
Another exciting use for radio astronomy is the search for extraterrestrial life. Theoretically speaking, it is likely that intellectually evolved, sentient extraterrestrials, although evolved on an entirely different planet under different conditions, would have figured out the electromagnetic spectrum. They may possibly even use radio waves for communication. A planet using radio for communication broadcasts its own intelligence to the heavens, as the beams of energy move at the speed of light into space. Astronomers dedicated to seeking out alien life, such as those over at SETI, utilize radio astronomy in hopes of picking up signals from extraterrestrial life.
These exciting projects are not far out of the reach of anyone with a passion for space. When asked what he would say to amatuer astronomers interested in contributing to the community, James exclaimed: “Do it! Astronomy is one of the few science fields where amateurs are actively contributing to the wealth of understanding of the universe. So you know what that means? Astronomy is not hard, space is just really big.”
The best way to become a radio astronomer is to start now. SMCC-ACE (Association of Cosmic Exploration) is seeking members! Our meeting time has changed: join us on Tuesdays at noon in Hildreth, room 201. We are continuously seeking tech-savvy students to help with our radio telescope. If you are interested in this type of research, or anything pertaining to astronomy, math, or science in general, stop by our meeting this Tuesday, or contact email@example.com.