EMU students, professor researching ionosphere in Alaska

by Ward Mullens, Published November 13, 2009

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YPSILANTI —Two Eastern Michigan University students and an EMU professor are conducting research on the ionosphere that will help further the understanding of how natural turbulence can affect communications and navigation transmissions such as GPS.

James Sheerin, professor of physics and astronomy, and students Nargis Adham and  Audelia Wittbrodt, spent about a month this summer at the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) in Gakona, Alaska. The facility has the largest, most powerful high-frequency radar in the world.

The EMU team participated in the Polar Aeronomy and Radio Science School (PARS), which is hosted each summer by the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The PARS program is prestigious, accepting only about 20 students from the U.S. on the basis of proposals submitted in a national competition. Adham and Wittbrodt worked with students from schools such as MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Stanford University.

“We artificially created bubbles in the ionosphere that simulate the kinds of irregularities that occur naturally,” Sheerin explained. “This allowed us to study them in a controlled way. Our purpose was to achieve a basic understanding of these ionospheric processes. Natural ionospheric turbulence can affect communications and navigation transmissions such as GPS (global position systems), which defense and civilian space and aviation systems rely upon.”

“This opportunity offers a big adventure even for the well-traveled, as both our students are,” Sheerin says. “It usually is the first chance students have to do ‘big science’ at a national facility.”

Adham, a graduate student from Commerce Township, and Wittbrodt, a senior from Farmington, performed experiments generating and measuring plasma waves in the ionosphere, said Sheerin. Sheerin, who has been at EMU since 1991, was instrumental in establishing what would eventually be known as the HAARP facility in the 1980s. He has returned with EMU students every summer since 2000.

During his distinguished career, Sheerin has had visiting faculty positions in prestigious institutions around the world, including Italy, Norway and Sweden. He was principal scientist in the National Inertial Confinement Fusion Program, and has served as a member on the National Science Foundation Commission on Upper Atmosphere Research Facilities.

Sheerin plans to present a paper on EMU’s PARS research in December at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, and he expects the research to yield three master’s thesis projects within the next year or so.

"I feel very fortunate that I got this opportunity through EMU's Physics Department to go to Alaska and perform those very important experiments at HAARP," said Adham. "I was very proud to be part of the team there. We had students with their mentors from many universities, and many international students from India and China. I met very nice people and I made new friends. It was a great experience."

Ward Mullens

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