Virginia Tech researchers hope studying the eclipse will bring…

A team of Virginia Tech researchers is hoping to learn more from the August solar eclipse.

Professor Greg Earle led a team of 15 graduate and undergraduate students on a project to learn from the rare event. He says they might find out more about how designers can make certain technology more reliable, like GPS devices and tools airports use to coordinate traffic.

The team placed antennas across the country for the eclipse. Members set up in Oregon, Kansas and South Carolina.

The group is hoping its one-of-a-kind project will shed light on how certain technology will react to out-of-the-ordinary space weather events, like eclipses.

“I anticipate we’ll be able to infer a lot of things from this experiment that were surprises, things we didn’t expect, but I certainly can’t tell you yet what those are,” Earle said.

He said he hopes to have conclusions to the research one year from now. The team is looking at preliminary data now and will present some of its findings at a scientific conference in December in New Orleans.

The team studied the penumbral region of the eclipse, a part that no one has looked at closely before now. Through seeing radio signal distortion, it hopes to learn more about errors in technology. Anything that uses satellites could be affected.

“Other space weather events can affect this conductive region of the atmosphere in similar ways so we want to improve our ability to understand that,” he said.

GPS and other location-based technology extends far beyond just how people use their phones to navigate through roads. Space weather events could change how accurately airports can coordinate traffic. One system used is called WAAS, which allows planes to know where they are, is reliable in normal conditions.

“But if there’s a storm going on, one of these geomagnetic storms, you can find times where the entire country, the WAAS system is unusable,” he said.

As more systems become machine-run, Earle says the problems could have more of an impact.

“It’s absolutely relevant and as we become more and more dependent on autonomous systems that need to know where they are, then things like this are going to have an effect,” he said.

The team is trying to figure out how important some of these anomalies are.

“It has impact for those things and part of our research is to try and figure out how important those impacts are. Are they big enough that we should care? Or are they so small that we can neglect them?” Earle said.

The space weather events can impact A.M. radio waves. This research could help us understand the unpredictability of fluctuations in the waves’ reach. 

The events can also impact Ham radio signals. The Virginia Tech team worked with thousands of Ham radio operators to record data during the eclipse.

One operator in South Carolina says he talked to someone in California, something that ordinarily wouldn’t happen during the daytime. The eclipse distorted the paths of the radio waves to allow them to travel, in some cases, twice as far.

Another effect is on over-the-horizon radar, which the military uses. These events could either help or hinder its performance. The military has shown interest in the team’s work.

Earle thinks the team gathered the data effectively, however, there is 3 terabytes of data, so there’s plenty of work on the horizon for the Virginia Tech group.


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