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The Zeman Lab Radar, a 600-foot array of antennas at Cornell Botanic Gardens, can identify space weather effects in the northeast United States.

Professor engineers radar tools to monitor space weather

We are all too familiar with severe weather on Earth, but many of us aren’t aware of the severe weather in space – the varying conditions between the sun and the Earth, including solar wind, flares and particles.

David Hysell, Ph.D. ’92, the Thomas R. Briggs Professor of Engineering in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, is using funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop new radar tools and techniques for monitoring space weather, through both upgrades to the world’s largest radar and the creation of a new radar system at Cornell.

Space weather is caused by activity on the sun’s surface. Eruptions of plasma and magnetic field structures from the sun’s atmosphere, coupled with solar flares, can even cause space weather effects on Earth. The Earth is protected by the magnetic field and atmosphere that surround it, but there can still be disruptions to communications during geomagnetic storms in space.

These disruptions to GPS, satellite communications and ground-based communications can have major implications for the military and private companies, including agriculture companies that use GPS to guide farm equipment or oil companies that use GPS to guide offshore drilling.

Hysell has dedicated his career to understanding space weather and its implications, primarily using the Jicamarca Radio Observatory, located outside Lima, Peru. The world’s largest radar observatory, Jicamarca is a 1,000-foot by 1,000-foot antenna grid linked to four transmitters that together produce 6 megawatts of power.

Jicamarca is owned by the Peruvian government and funded mainly through a cooperative agreement between the NSF and Cornell. Hysell became the principal investigator for Jicamarca in 2005, and has since focused on developing, prototyping and testing new radar techniques, modes and instrumentation, many of which have been deployed at sites around the world.

With $1 million from the NSF, Hysell and his team are now beginning to make upgrades to Jicamarca that will allow for more cutting-edge experiments. The radar routinely takes measurements up to 1,500 kilometers (about 930 miles), around the altitude most satellites fly.

After the expansive upgrade to the facility, Hysell and his team will try to get radar echoes from the sun – but at around 150,000,000 kilometers (93 million miles) away, this will be an extremely difficult task, Hysell said.

“There are all these eruptive events that occur on the sun, and we look at them optically, which is passive, but we’d like to look at them actively with radar,” Hysell said. “If we could do that, then we would have a new tool for space weather monitoring.”

Even with the upgrade, Hysell and his team would be right on the margin of reaching the sun with remote sensing. The new experiments will take careful signal processing, especially due to the interference caused by the ever-growing number of satellites and spacecraft.

The research project was originally scheduled to begin last year, but travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the work. As a result, Hysell secured NSF funds to build a new radar closer to home – on the grounds of the Cornell Botanic Gardens.

The Zeman Lab Radar, a 600-foot array of antennas named after a research group that previously used the property, can identify space weather effects for the Northeast region of the United States, specifically over the Great Lakes. A key feature is the implementation of radar imaging techniques, which provide a volumetric view and provide information about the spatial, temporal and dynamic structure of the underlying waves and instabilities.

The Zemen Radar is the first of a chain of radars that will be built down the East Coast, eventually providing a latitudinal network. Most space weather occurs at the poles, Hysell said, so little research has been done at these latitudes.

“You would think this would be one of the most boring places imaginable for space weather,” he said, “but it’s turned out to be really quite interesting.”

Erin Philipson is a communications specialist for the College of Engineering.

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