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Space Grant Students Make Innovative Solar Discoveries in Chile

Press Release From: NASA HQ
Posted: Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Last December, university students from the Idaho, Oklahoma and Montana Space Grant Consortia traveled to Santiago, Chile under strict COVID-19 protocols to assist NASA and the National Science Foundation with first-of-its-kind solar eclipse research. 

The National Space Grant College and Fellowship Project, also known as Space Grant, is a national network of over 850 colleges, universities, industry partners, informal education institutions and government agencies that participate in NASA’s work through science and engineering education, research and public outreach efforts. Space Grant, which is made up of 52 consortia around the U.S. and Puerto Rico, funds fellowships and scholarships for students pursuing careers in STEM. 

Space Grant assembled teams of students and interns to go to Chile after scientists detected eclipse-driven gravity waves for the first time in 2017. Gravity waves are fundamental to the movement of energy and momentum through the atmosphere. These waves affect the weather and climate, and understanding their influence allows for improvements in forecasting. Measuring wave characteristics produced by an eclipse also provides crucial data in the development of accurate physical descriptions of gravity waves. Space Grant sought to add to this research by measuring the atmospheric effects of a pair of solar eclipses that were visible in South America in June 2019 and December 2020.

In 2019, the first student teams traveled to the Andes Mountains in Chile, where they were able to detect the first eclipse-driven stratospheric gravity waves—located in the second layer of Earth’s atmosphere, the stratosphere—by deploying sensor-carrying balloons. Excited by the students’ discovery, Space Grant began planning the second trip to build on the research.

The next opportunity to capture a solar eclipse traveling from West to East over the same geographic region was December 2020. A second visit to Chile provided the opportunity to replicate the 2019 results, keeping as many variables constant as possible, while involving a new team of students. It was essential to return to Chile in 2020 because the next opportunity to study two solar eclipses traveling in the same direction in the southern hemisphere will not occur until 2037 and 2038 in Australia.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic derailed the group’s initial plans. In response, Space Grant and National Science Foundation funded virtual training for the project; students from the University of Idaho, Montana State University, Oklahoma State University and the University of Kentucky participated in 400 hours of virtual training for both the field work and data analysis, followed by meetings with mentors and student groups throughout the summer.

With extensive planning around COVID-19 protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the country of Chile and the respective universities, 17 student researchers were able to travel to Chile in early December. The students and program directors quarantined for 14 days prior to travel, were tested within 72 hours of their departure, tested again upon arrival and adhered to strict safety protocols: masks were worn at all time, hotel rooms were limited to one individual, equipment was sanitized between individual use and daily health reports were filed.

“There was no detail too small when organizing an international field campaign during a global pandemic,” said Hannah Woody, a Space Grant student researcher from Montana, “from the number of extensions cords and power adaptors needed, to orchestrating [COVID-19]  tests in a foreign country. The most valuable experience I had in field was recognizing the importance of minute details and the necessity of contingency plans.” 

When the team members arrived in Chile on Dec. 8, some students were still finishing up their fall semesters virtually. Students from each of the universities could be seen studying together and supporting one another, setting the stage for the collaborative effort to come.

“They always worked together,” said Jennifer Fowler, assistant director for the Montana Space Grant Consortia. “It didn’t matter where you were from, what school, what your major was—they were a team and they always acted like a team.”

The students were assigned to one of two teams at two different launch sites and the 48 hours of balloon launches began on Dec. 13. The teams of students were intermixed, regardless of university or major, and even included virtual participation from students back in the United States. While the Chilean field teams were collecting data day and night, team members from the University of Kentucky, University of Idaho, University of Montana and Oklahoma State University conducted data analysis back in the U.S.

The 48-hour campaign was divided into day and night shifts, allowing team members to stay well-rested and fed throughout the two days. The teams set up their “mission control,” which included ground stations designed to receive data and a balloon filling area where team members could work and sleep.

The teams of students launched balloons hourly, which carried sensors to measure changes in atmospheric temperature, pressure, relative humidity, and wind speed and direction. The group also implemented a surface station to measure these factors and solar irradiance changes during the eclipse, and were able to successfully detect stratospheric gravity waves, like the 2019 teams before them. Data from the project is currently being analyzed, but the teams were able to record over 150 gravity waves throughout the field campaign and they hope to gain a clearer understanding of their origins.

“This [field research] has been an excellent opportunity to synthesize the tools I've learned in the classroom with the messy problems we're trying to understand in the field,” said Malachi Mooney-Rivkin, a Space Grant student researcher from Idaho. “My experience in Chile—and all of the preparation and analysis related to it—has cemented my interest in a research career.”

The Space Grant Consortium and its directors continue to seek out unique STEM opportunities for students to engage with NASA’s work and missions. More information on your state’s Space Grant opportunities can be found here.

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