The Jicamarca Observatory, near Lima, Peru.

Cornell leads expansion of Jicamarca radar observatory

Cornell is renewing and expanding research operations at the Jicamarca Observatory – the world’s largest incoherent scatter radar system – thanks to more than $12 million in grants that will help scientists better understand the “space weather” that affects satellites and other technology linked to Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Located in Lima, Peru, Jicamarca employs more than 18,000 dipole antennae spread across 90,000 square meters of desert terrain to beam radio signals toward space and gather valuable information about the Earth’s ionosphere and beyond.

Cornell has led research operations for most of the observatory’s existence, dating back to the 1960s when NASA began sending people to space and scientists wanted to learn more about the physics of space weather, disturbances caused by bursts of radiation hurled toward Earth by solar flares.

“That impetus has never really gone away because we keep putting more and more stuff up into space, including satellites that enable GPS, imaging, internet, and radio and television communications,” said David Hysell, director of Jicamarca and the Thomas R. Briggs Professor in Engineering in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. “Space is a hostile environment and as the solar flux climbs, people are going to be reminded that these operational systems are fragile and aren’t resilient to space weather effects.”

The National Science Foundation recently awarded Jicamarca $8.65 million to continue operations for the next five years, and an additional $1.25 million for facility upgrades set to begin in 2023. The upgrades will allow perpetual high-power mode operations at the facility and increase its radar sensitivity.

“It will be possible to measure atmospheric parameters way out into the plasmasphere. That's an order of magnitude further away than any other radar facility is making observations right now,” said Hysell, who added that the radar signals will be powerful enough to penetrate the surface of the moon, helping scientists search for water and other lunar discoveries.

Hysell hopes the upgrades may even be strong enough to bounce signals off the solar corona, the outermost region of the sun’s atmosphere – something no other radar facility has been able to do, according to Hysell. If successful, the technology could provide the basis for an entirely new level of space weather forecasting.

A $2.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Major Research Instrumentation Program will provide further upgrades to the observatory, allowing it to construct and deploy two new radio array facilities in Peru. The new facilities will work in concert with Jicamarca’s existing array, creating a triangulation effect that will allow the observatory to perform 3D volumetric imaging.

Hysell said the grant – led by Fabiano Rodrigues, Ph.D. ’08, now an assistant professor of physics at the University of Texas, Dallas – will enable several research projects that target scientific mysteries in the ionosphere. One such project will examine meteor radar afterglow, the radio waves emitted by meteors.

“This is a really new, exciting phenomenon,” Hysell said. “Our radar can actually see the little rock, that micrometeorite, that left the trail and it can scatter off the ionization behind it. Then the new facilities will see the radio emissions from it. It’s really cutting edge.”

All the upgrades are expected to be completed by the end of 2023.

Syl Kacapyr is associate director of marketing and communications for the College of Engineering.

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