Students work with Nathaniel Frissell in the ham radio lab on campus (photo by The University of Scranton)

From my perspective as a physics professor, the quote attributed to St. Ignatius of Loyola to “go forth, and set the world on fire” is almost embedded in The University of Scranton’s DNA. We hear it throughout the year, at lectures, meetings, and events on campus. The idea is rooted in our approach to teaching and research. We seek daily to not just involve, but to truly engage our students in the learning process. We want to spark in them a passion to learn more – and more – about the subjects we teach.

To extend this effort to the community beyond our campus seems like the natural next step to take—one I have undertaken in my space research over the past few years.

My research involves measuring and better understanding the physics of the ionosphere: the electrically charged layer of the Earth’s upper atmosphere. The ionospheric variability that I study has a direct impact on critical technologies such as satellite navigation (e.g., GPS), and high-frequency signals used to communicate large distances by the U.S. Department of Defense, commercial ships, commercial aircraft, and emergency services when infrastructure such as cell phone networks and satellite communications are unavailable.

It also affects ham radio transmissions, which remain a very important communication tool because they don’t rely on infrastructure. Radio communications can refract off the ionosphere and return to earth. This process can repeat multiple times – for example, allowing people in the United States to communicate with people in Australia – without the use of expensive satellites.

To gather data on fluctuations in the ionosphere, I developed the Ham Radio Science Citizen Investigation collective (HamSCI): a citizen science tool that links the global amateur (ham) radio community with professional researchers. In the U.S., there are more than 730,000 licensed amateur radio operators and nearly 3 million worldwide.

During the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse, I led a nationwide ham radio experiment to gather data. Since then, I have received grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, and other agencies to further develop, train, equip and engage this important network of enthusiastic individuals.

Nathaniel Frissell (second from left) and Scranton president, Rev. Joseph Marina, S.J. (third from right) with NASA representatives on campus in 2022 (photo by The University of Scranton)

Fueling the Flames
Some of the grants I have received include a $399,211 NSF grant, awarded in 2022, for a collaborative research project entitled “Measuring Daily Ionospheric Variability and the 2023 and 2024 Solar Eclipse Ionospheric Impacts Using HamSCI HF Doppler Shift Receivers.” The research will be done using a network of Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) stabilized/synchronized high frequency (HF) receivers (known as Grapes), which were developed as part of a $1.3 million NSF grant I received in 2019 for the HamSCI Personal Space Weather Station (PSWS) project. In 2021, I was awarded a collaborative $481,000 grant through NASA’s Space Weather Applications Operations 2 Research Program for a project entitled, “Enabling Space Weather Research with Global Scale Amateur Radio Datasets.” These, as well as additional grants, further supported this effort, including student involvement in the research projects.

Seeing Students Spark
At The University of Scranton, it has been my pleasure to work with students on multiple research projects and to watch them present their work at conferences and workshops, such as the NSF CEDAR Workshop and the Dayton Hamvention.

I have worked with two teams of undergraduate students who built atmospheric sensing devices that were launched into space by NASA in a rocket as part of NASA’s RockOn program. (Now tell me, how cool is that spark!)

It has been a joy to share my passion for amateur (ham) radio with students and to secure funds from an Amateur Radio Digital Communications grant to build a new ham radio station in the Loyola Science Center on campus for our very active student Amateur Radio Club.

It was also a delight to see one of our recent graduates, Veronica Romanek ’23, a physics and Spanish double major, receive a highly-competitive national Amateur Radio Digital Communications (ARDC) scholarship. It is an even greater joy to know that she is now continuing this work as a fully-funded electrical engineering Ph.D. student in the Virginia Tech SuperDARN laboratory.

In much of this work, research and engagement overlaps with collaborations that involve volunteers from the HamSCI Citizen Science project who have years of professional experience and advanced academic training. These collaborations provide a unique a community-based research experience that is enriching to both our students and the volunteers.

Nathaniel Frissell (photo by The University of Scranton)

Kindling Other Flames
Several years ago, NASA launched a Citizen Science initiative to encourage collaborations between scientists and members of the general public. Through these collaborations, NASA has logged thousands of important scientific discoveries that have been aided by non-scientist collaborators. To date, more than 410 NASA citizen scientists have been named as co-authors on refereed scientific publications.

The HamSCI project is among Citizen Science projects supported by NASA to study the upcoming eclipses. The worldwide, amateur ham radio operators, along with University students, will next collect data from the April 18, 2024 total solar eclipse for use in space physics research.

This crowd-sourced international effort demonstrates how committed citizen-scientists and students are building the data that can help better understand science. It demonstrates the fire that can be generated by igniting individual sparks.

By Nathaniel A. Frissell, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Physics and Engineering, The University of Scranton