Members of the Suffolk County Radio Club will participate in a study of how Monday's eclipse will affect signals between the sun and the ionosphere. NewsdayTV's Steve Langford reports. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

When the total solar eclipse crosses a swath of North America next week, Long Island’s amateur radio operators will participate in a NASA-funded project documenting its effect on the atmosphere roughly 50 to 400 miles above the Earth’s surface, on the edge of space.

By measuring the behavior of radio waves from the messages they and other ham radio operators, or "hams," send and receive before, during and after the eclipse, researchers hope to learn new information about the ionosphere, the layers of atmosphere through which GPS and communications satellite signals pass — and off which AM and ham radio signals can bounce.

“I see this as a pure science event,” said Bob Ciappa, an electrical engineer from Farmingville and member of the Suffolk County Radio Club, one of those who will participate. “It involves people communicating with other people, not just mixing chemicals in a lab.”

The project, called the Ham Radio Science Citizen Investigation, or HamSCI, is intended to show how much of the ionosphere is affected by the eclipse, and for how long and exactly why, said project leader Nathaniel Frissell, professor of physics and engineering at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.

“We are very interested in the processes that happen in the upper atmosphere, and in the eclipse we’ll see how the ionosphere reacts to that very short, quick moving night,” Frissell said in a phone interview. HamSCI is also funded by the National Science Foundation.

The ionosphere takes its name from the process of ionization that takes place when the sun’s radiation hits a particle — for example, a molecule of oxygen or a hydrogen atom — ejecting a negatively charged free electron. The ionosphere is strongest during the day and weakens at night, when the sun’s radiation diminishes and ions and electrons more easily recombine.

Hams like Ciappa bounce signals off those electrons to signal interlocutors over the curve of the Earth, generally using higher frequency signals during the day and lower frequency signals at night.

Because the eclipse, unlike nightfall, is relatively localized and takes minutes, not hours, scientists will have an unusually well-controlled opportunity to observe change to the ionosphere.

That’s where Ciappa and his friends come in.

By analyzing data from millions of their eclipse-day “spots” — brief, oftentimes electronic exchanges of information about a station’s frequency, location and other details — researchers can make inferences about the ionosphere and its response to the eclipse, effectively mapping and measuring “parts of the atmosphere that satellites aren’t able to measure,” Frissell said. That experimental data can be used to improve physicists’ models of how the atmosphere works, he said.

HamSCI projects organized for previous eclipses have shown that the effects of the event on signal traffic were larger and longer than might be expected, findings Frissell and his colleagues have said suggest avenues for continued research.

About 500 ham operators, including more than a dozen Long Islanders, are expected to join Monday.

“All of this information will help out for communications in the future,” said Ed Wilson, Suffolk County Radio Club’s vice president, a retired NYPD detective who lives in Shirley and plans to participate Monday from the grounds of the Moriches branch of the Mastics-Moriches-Shirley Community Library. First responders and the military also use high-frequency radio signals, and Wilson said ham operators often help communications after a disaster, as they did after Superstorm Sandy.

The information could also help improve GPS technology, which Frissell said is susceptible to signal delays caused by the ionosphere that are barely noticeable to a driver following turn-by-turn directions but potentially critical for a pilot trying to land in zero visibility.

“If you can predict them, it might help you compensate for some of those delays, or anticipate when you can expect outages in the GPS system,” he said.

While several of the hams interviewed for this story said that, like Wilson, they were happy to do their bit for radio science, that dedication didn’t mean they’d be tied to their radios for the entire eclipse.

“I’ll give it a shot, but somewhere along the line I’m going to go out there with welding glasses and look at the sun,” said Paul Janson, a retired steamfitter from Ronkonkoma and member of the Long Island Mobile Amateur Radio Club.

When the total solar eclipse crosses a swath of North America next week, Long Island’s amateur radio operators will participate in a NASA-funded project documenting its effect on the atmosphere roughly 50 to 400 miles above the Earth’s surface, on the edge of space.

By measuring the behavior of radio waves from the messages they and other ham radio operators, or "hams," send and receive before, during and after the eclipse, researchers hope to learn new information about the ionosphere, the layers of atmosphere through which GPS and communications satellite signals pass — and off which AM and ham radio signals can bounce.

“I see this as a pure science event,” said Bob Ciappa, an electrical engineer from Farmingville and member of the Suffolk County Radio Club, one of those who will participate. “It involves people communicating with other people, not just mixing chemicals in a lab.”

The project, called the Ham Radio Science Citizen Investigation, or HamSCI, is intended to show how much of the ionosphere is affected by the eclipse, and for how long and exactly why, said project leader Nathaniel Frissell, professor of physics and engineering at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.

“We are very interested in the processes that happen in the upper atmosphere, and in the eclipse we’ll see how the ionosphere reacts to that very short, quick moving night,” Frissell said in a phone interview. HamSCI is also funded by the National Science Foundation.

The ionosphere takes its name from the process of ionization that takes place when the sun’s radiation hits a particle — for example, a molecule of oxygen or a hydrogen atom — ejecting a negatively charged free electron. The ionosphere is strongest during the day and weakens at night, when the sun’s radiation diminishes and ions and electrons more easily recombine.

Hams like Ciappa bounce signals off those electrons to signal interlocutors over the curve of the Earth, generally using higher frequency signals during the day and lower frequency signals at night.

Because the eclipse, unlike nightfall, is relatively localized and takes minutes, not hours, scientists will have an unusually well-controlled opportunity to observe change to the ionosphere.

That’s where Ciappa and his friends come in.

By analyzing data from millions of their eclipse-day “spots” — brief, oftentimes electronic exchanges of information about a station’s frequency, location and other details — researchers can make inferences about the ionosphere and its response to the eclipse, effectively mapping and measuring “parts of the atmosphere that satellites aren’t able to measure,” Frissell said. That experimental data can be used to improve physicists’ models of how the atmosphere works, he said.

HamSCI projects organized for previous eclipses have shown that the effects of the event on signal traffic were larger and longer than might be expected, findings Frissell and his colleagues have said suggest avenues for continued research.

About 500 ham operators, including more than a dozen Long Islanders, are expected to join Monday.

“All of this information will help out for communications in the future,” said Ed Wilson, Suffolk County Radio Club’s vice president, a retired NYPD detective who lives in Shirley and plans to participate Monday from the grounds of the Moriches branch of the Mastics-Moriches-Shirley Community Library. First responders and the military also use high-frequency radio signals, and Wilson said ham operators often help communications after a disaster, as they did after Superstorm Sandy.

The information could also help improve GPS technology, which Frissell said is susceptible to signal delays caused by the ionosphere that are barely noticeable to a driver following turn-by-turn directions but potentially critical for a pilot trying to land in zero visibility.

“If you can predict them, it might help you compensate for some of those delays, or anticipate when you can expect outages in the GPS system,” he said.

While several of the hams interviewed for this story said that, like Wilson, they were happy to do their bit for radio science, that dedication didn’t mean they’d be tied to their radios for the entire eclipse.

“I’ll give it a shot, but somewhere along the line I’m going to go out there with welding glasses and look at the sun,” said Paul Janson, a retired steamfitter from Ronkonkoma and member of the Long Island Mobile Amateur Radio Club.

Latest Videos

SUBSCRIBE

Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months

ACT NOWSALE ENDS SOON | CANCEL ANYTIME