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University of Scranton professor will study upcoming eclipses through grant

A map showing where the moon’s shadow will cross the U.S. during the 2023 annular solar eclipse and 2024 total solar eclipse.
A map showing where the moon’s shadow will cross the U.S. during the 2023 annular solar eclipse and 2024 total solar eclipse.

NASA describes an eclipse as an “awe-inspiring celestial event" that drastically changes the appearance of the two biggest objects in the sky: the Sun and Moon.

During an eclipse, the Moon moves between the Sun and Earth, casting a shadow on the planet. Ham radio operators communicate through signals that reflect off an electrified layer of the globe’s upper atmosphere called the ionosphere, said Nathaniel Frissell, Ph.D.

“If you put the Moon shadow in the way, it turns off that ionization and it reduces the reflectivity of that layer," he said.

Frissell is a University of Scranton professor in the physics and engineering department. He received a grant from NASA to hold two Solar Eclipse QSO Space Parties. QSO is ham-speak for when one radio operator talks to another. Frissell, his students and citizen scientists will study how the eclipse impacts the ionosphere using amateur radio communications.

The first party will be on Saturday, Oct. 14, during the annular solar eclipse — that’s when the Moon will be farther away and will look like just a black circle on the Sun. The second soiree is on April 8 during the total solar eclipse.

The October eclipse will be visible mostly in the western United States and parts of Texas. The April total eclipse will be visible in the south and midwest. By 3:16 p.m. it will hit Erie, Pennsylvania before moving north east through Canada.

An eclipse happens on Earth roughly twice a year, Frissell said.

The local amateur radio operators will record how strong their signals are and how far they go to observe how the ionosphere changes during the eclipses.

Cell phones and other devices communicate over long distances because of the infrastructure in place: there's repeaters, satellite systems, cell towers and the internet that carry those signals, said Frissell. Amateur radio uses the natural atmosphere to get singles from one place to another.

When something like an eclipse happens, it changes how the ham radio operators are able to communicate.

Frissell will work with both his students and citizen scientists on the project.

"One of the things I really like about the ham radio citizen science community is ... we're not using hams simply as data collectors, we're actually having them help us design the experiment and do the analysis," he said. "They're actually fully part of the team.”

Over the last three to five years, NASA found citizen science is an important and valid way of doing scientific investigations, said Frissell.

“They like having people on a large scale be able to participate and produce new knowledge in a meaningful way," he said.

During the space parties, the hams will try to talk to as many people as they can over amateur radio within a certain set amount of time while collecting data.

“I'm also looking for data that is going to show either short term or small scale effects that the eclipse might be causing on the ionosphere," he said.

Ham radio became a passion for Frissell when he was on a Boy Scout camping trip in seventh or eighth grade.

"It was a cold, wet, rainy October weekend and and no one really wanted to be outside," he said.

Frissell wandered into a cabin where a ham radio operator was stationed.

"I just heard the crackle of the static from all over, the voices coming in from all over the world," he said. "And that just captured my attention.”

He got his Ph.D. in electrical engineering and atmospheric science. Now he’s leading research using the communication method.

"Any sort of improved understanding of the ionosphere ... could potentially help us improve communication systems in general," he said.

Kat Bolus is the community reporter for the newly-formed WVIA News Team. She is a former reporter and columnist at The Times-Tribune, a Scrantonian and cat mom.