Monitoring radio emissions from the sun, high school students are participating in a radio science campaign for the SunRISE Ground Radio Lab, in collaboration with the University of Michigan (U-M), NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Radio Jove, and NASA’s SunRISE mission, now slated for launch in 2025. SunRISE, or the Sun Radio Interferometer Space Experiment, is an array of six toaster-size SmallSats that will work together to study solar activity.
Open to high schools across the nation, the SunRISE Ground Radio Lab encourages citizen science using a multi-frequency radio telescope to observe radio emissions from Jupiter, the Sun, the Milky Way Galaxy, and Earth. Data from the SunRISE Ground Radio Lab will complement the measurements taken by SunRISE in space, engaging the public and educating the next generations of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) scholars through real citizen science campaigns.
A Unique Program in Participatory Science
Assistant Research Scientist Mojtaba Akhavan-Tafti is leading the SunRISE Ground Radio Lab from the U-M Department of Climate and Space in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He mentored a team of U-M postdocs and high school students, and they will conduct their second large campaign during the Total Solar Eclipse in April 2024.
Among them was a student from the Washtenaw Community College over the summer, helping them to create video tutorials for their peers and launching an online educational program. Even though the spacecraft are waiting for the ride, the SunRISE GRL team is engaging with high schools nationwide on a new radio science lab collaboration, beginning with two Solar Eclipses. The free, online program opened August 18, welcoming high schools across the U.S. to participate, and offering a NASA certificate of completion to students who finish the program.
“In simple terms, the Sun emits bundles of extremely fast charged particles that generate radio waves on the way out. Sometimes, also bundles of magnetic fields that come off the sun’s surface. We call these interplanetary coronal mass ejections. If a coronal mass ejection is launched in the direction of the Earth, as it hits the Earth’s magnetic field, it can cause interruptions in our power grid, in our flight systems, in transmission systems, and so on, and so forth,” said Akhavan-Tafti. “A beautiful signature of this is the aurorae, and when you see them, they’re very pretty.”
He said the number one goal of the SunRISE Ground Radio Lab is STEAM engagement with high school students. The number two goal is to support the SunRISE mission itself, complementing the data observed in space with nationwide ground observations of the same radio emissions.
“Students will be looking for radio waves coming from the emitted fast particles. The radio emissions look differently when they also come with an interplanetary coronal mass ejections,” said Akhavan-Tafti. “They are looking for these extreme space weather events that are going to impact Earth, but the radio emissions are the precursors to these events.”
Collecting Real-World Data on Solar Emissions
While the SunRISE Ground Lab is a citizen science project geared to high school students, it has the potential to generate science-quality data that can be used to conduct real science.
“There is so much happening in our ionosphere, that is interfering with what scientists can see coming from the sun. In some ways, the ionosphere filters out much of the good signals,” said Akhavan-Tafti. “The 6 SunRISE SmallSats will work together as one telescope to observe these radiowaves coming from the Sun and by flying in space, will avoid all of the ionospheric disturbances. We can complement the SunRISE mission with data collection from these new SunRISE GRL ground-based antennas spanning across the U.S., characterizing the ionospheric disturbances, and more importantly, substantially increasing the radio coverage area.”
Not only will the SunRISE Ground Radio Lab enagage high school students in data collection, but it will also increase science literacy, provide hands-on experience in radio astronomy, and enable access to online observatories, while expanding a network of radio antennas across the United States. Offering the program free of charge, the team at the University of Michigan College of Engineering will support the deployment of a dual-dipole antenna and offer training to student teams and the high school teachers who express an interest in the program.
Rebecca Hullstrung, a high school student at Washtenaw Technical Middle College (WTMC) who interned with SunRISE GRL during the summer, learned about the SunRISE Ground Radio Lab from her astronomy instructor Daniel Majaess, at Washtenaw Community College.
“When learning about this program I was excited to find out it was a partnership with NASA, as I had worked on the GAVRT and SETI projects with NASA when I was younger and had thoroughly enjoyed it,” she said. “I find it interesting how the team is so hands on over the path that these antennas go on, from the materials they’re made of to the modules that teach students about radio astronomy and citizen science.”
During her internship, she worked with a team to help create affordable antennas so antenna kits could be delivered to high schools across the country. The internship included high school students in the early work to develop the SunRISE Ground Radio Lab antenna kits, as well as to generate content for the educational program.
Inspiring the Next Generation of Space Scientists
“It feels amazing to be a part of this project and to participate in something that has the potential to go well beyond myself,” said Hullstrung. “This may be the push some students need to become citizen scientists. It could even potentially inspire them to start their career as a scientist as well!”
When she started the project, she did not have any plans to work on machinery and help fabricate the antennas in the Wilson Center, but she was glad she gave it a try.
“I’ve really enjoyed this project because you get to learn and use skills that you may not have had access to before,” she said. “As a photography student, it isn’t a skill I would normally have access to, but through the use of citizen science programs such as these, it gives you the chance to broaden your skill sets.”
During the fall, the antenna kits created by the team will be delivered to 2,500 students. The SunRISE Ground Radio Lab went live at the start of the school year 2023-2024, with their first observation campaign on the annular Solar Eclipse of October 2023.
“One of the most exciting parts of this project for me has been developing the modules that the students are going to learn from. This has been one of my favorite parts because it allows me to use my astronomy knowledge and my new knowledge of the antennas to help teach entire schools about the importance of our project and the importance of citizen science as a whole,” she said. “It has been such an amazing experience to dive deeper into my knowledge of space weather and have the opportunity to be able to share that with people around the United States.”
Many high schools participated in the first campaign in time for the Annular Solar Eclipse in October 2023, including Sault Area High School, Sault St. Marie, Michigan; CROEM High School, Boqueron, PR; Belmont High School, Belmont, Massachusetts; and Trinity Christian School, Morgantown, West Virginia.
“The first observation campaign enabled high schools around the country to capture data at the same time during a known astrophysical phenomenon, solar eclipse, and compare their data to see for themselves how different different parts of the country observe the same event, therefore learning about how interferometry can help identify the source of events far far away,” said Akhavan-Tafti. “The campaign also allowed us as a team to improve our instructions to better help our participating high schools. The lessons learned will be applied to improve future observation campaigns.”
Interested high schools are encouraged to reach out to the SunRISE Ground Radio Lab to receive an antenna kit, to participate in monthly interactive webinars with space science and engineering experts, and to access the free educational materials at https://sunrise.umich.edu/. The SunRISE GRL team can also be followed on social media platforms, using the handle @SunRISE_GRL.