National Science Foundation constructs radar facility on FHSU grounds; internship created
08/27/2009

Space weather causes awe-inspiring auroras. It also causes geomagnetic storms that bring down power grids, cut satellite communications and can dose astronauts with more radiation in a few hours than they would get in a full year on earth.

During a news conference this morning in Tomanek Hall on the Fort Hays State University campus, President Edward H. Hammond announced that FHSU had become a partner with Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va., in a project to monitor space weather.

"This worldwide Super Dual Auroral Radar Network, which has been dubbed 'SuperDARN,' will study the impact of the changing solar wind on Earth's near-space environment," President Hammond said. "This will help us understand the phenomenon that leads to both the beautiful lights and the harmful effects."

He said antennas would be constructed southwest of Hays at Golf Course Road and 210th Ave., on the northeastern corner of the intersection. The installation will consist of two low-power, high-frequency radars, each having a total of two dozen 56-foot poles that support wire antennas over 42-foot gaps. "The antennas need to be this large to generate the signal with 100-foot wavelength that is used to produce the echoes from the upper atmosphere that reveal space weather," the president explained.

The construction will be handled by local contracts in three stages: first, surveying the land and pouring concrete piers; second, building the equipment shelter; and third, assembling the antennas. President Hammond said the bid for the first stage had been awarded to Commercial Builders Inc. of Hays. The other two stages have not yet been awarded.

President Hammond also introduced Dr. John Heinrichs, chair of the Department of Geosciences, who explained how FHSU became involved in the effort to study solar wind.

"Virginia Tech approached us first," Heinrichs said. "We have the land and location, and it's a great opportunity for FHSU to be involved in a project like this."

Heinrichs said the radar installation would provide an internship and research opportunities to FHSU students and faculty, especially in observing the motion of the partially ionized gas, or plasma, of Earth’s ionosphere, which stretches between about 45 and 600 miles in altitude. "The main goal of the installation is to map the plasma motion over central North America," Heinrichs said. "Ionospheric plasma circulates over the entire globe in response to the interaction of the solar wind with Earth’s magnetic field."
Heinrichs said the SuperDARN network had been operating since the first radar installation was constructed in Labrador, Canada, in 1983. The U.S. portion of SuperDARN consists of five radars funded by the National Science Foundation. The total SuperDARN collaboration counts more than 20 radars in both the northern and southern hemispheres that are supported by the funding agencies of a dozen countries. The installations were originally located at higher latitudes where auroral activity is common and space weather can be studied almost daily. "Combining the observations from all the radars leads to maps of the global motion of ionospheric plasma, which are similar in appearance to the maps of winds and pressure fronts seen in daily weather reports," he said.

The FHSU radar facility is funded as part of an NSF program called MSI, or Mid-Sized Infrastructure, Heinrichs said. The overall goal of the project is to assemble a chain of SuperDARN radars at lower latitudes so that space weather can continue to be mapped when it expands below the auroral regions during large and potentially dangerous magnetic storms. There are currently two U.S. radars operating at these lower latitudes in Virginia; the Kansas site will add two more. The NSF has awarded the MSI project a $6 million budget for the installation of pairs of new radars at sites in Kansas, Oregon, Alaska and the Azores. When finished, the mid-latitude chain will count at least 11 radars.

Heinrichs said the FHSU intern for the project would be a local point of contact for operation and maintenance of the radar, would conduct data analysis and modeling, and would coordinate with Virginia Tech during construction of the facility.

Mark Garrett, Dodge City senior, is filling the position currently. He recently attended a weeklong training seminar in Virginia, where he learned how to operate the data analysis system and maintain the facility that will be in Kansas. Garrett is a physics and computer science major. The SuperDARN internship works well with both of his majors.

"Knowing the principles of plasma physics helps when collecting the data," said Garrett. "But without my computer science experience I'd have no way to analyze it, so they work well together."

When FHSU was selected, Dr. Michael Ruohoniemi (pronounced row-HAHN-o-me), head of the project and an associate professor of physics at Virginia Tech, commented on the partnership. "We were fortunate to find a local partner in Fort Hays State University," Ruohoniemi said. "We were able to identify shared research interests with the Department of Geosciences and the Department of Physics at FHSU and agreed on forming a partnership. The centerpiece of the partnership is the funding of an MSI-SuperDARN student internship at FHSU. This will enable FHSU students to participate in the MSI project and to become involved with the larger SuperDARN effort."

The overall MSI project is a collaboration involving a total of four institutions: Virginia Tech, as the lead institution; Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H.; the University of Alaska, Fairbanks; and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md. For more information on the FHSU radar installation, MSI and the SuperDARN project, visit http://www.space.vt.edu/superdarn/.


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