Using special telescopes they built themselves, budding astrophysicists Joe Benigno ’14 and Joanna Papadopoulos ’13 have been monitoring activity on the sun and Jupiter’s moon, Io, for NASA. In early March, the students recorded substantial activity in the sun’s environment, including solar storms that emit radiation so powerful it can “take out power stations” on Earth, said Benigno, a computational physics major.
The students’ work is aimed at gathering data by picking up “synchrotron radiation” emitted from the sun, Io, and the rest of the galaxy, said physics professor Paul Wiita, who is advising the students. It’s part of an international NASA project called “Radio JOVE.”
“We have continued conduction observations of solar flares/bursts from our own sun and Jovian S (short) and L (long) bursts from the interaction between Jupiter and its moon, Io,” said Papadopoulos, a MST (math, science, and technology) education major specializing in technology. “Io is known to house volcanoes [that] emit gas, which becomes ionized. Once ionized, these particles become trapped by Jupiter’s strong magnetic field. These charged particles then travel along Jupiter’s magnetic field lines and radio waves are emitted as they accelerate along its curves.”
The students monitor the bursts about once a week using dipole telescope antennas, which convert light to data, explained Benigno.
“When [light] hits the wire that is part of the dipole, it shakes the electrons that are resting on the wires … causing a current in the wire [that is] sent to a receiver and through the circuit board we made that helps section out the frequencies,” he said. “This is sent to our computers as what you would think of as pieces of sound…. It’s converting light in the radio spectrum into noise.” The noise is converted into graph form via a program that NASA supplied. “The graph’s amplitude [tells us] when a storm is happening on the sun or Io.”
Sometimes the data is easy to decipher, but other times there is background interference from the Milky Way that Benigno calls “background noise” as well as “radiation left over from the Big Bang” that “is still bouncing around, hitting our planet.”
“We were fortunate to capture many strong signals from a couple of powerful solar flares in March. This was surprising since the sun has been unusually quiet for the past couple of years,” said Wiita. “Joanna was out there on the right day taking data while getting messages from all around the world mobilizing astronomers to study the sun.”