Notes from HamSci 2020: The Auroral Connection

This year’s Ham Radio Science Citizen Investigation (HamSCI) Workshop 2020 took place online, over Zoom and YouTube Live. In this post, we’ll bring you details for how to watch the recorded presentations, summarize Aurorasaurus’ contributions to the presentation lineup, and share lessons learned for getting a conference online with a short turnaround. 

The HamSCI Workshop 2020 logo, courtesy HamSCI.

The HamSCI Workshop 2020 logo, courtesy HamSCI.

Connecting Communities

Citizen science thrives on community, and some of the best science comes from bringing different perspectives together to look at a concept in new ways. Both aurora and ham radio citizen scientists work closely with the Earth’s atmosphere and ionosphere, but aurora folks tend to think about how what we see reveals aspects of the ionosphere, ham radio operators tend to think about what radio waves can tell us about the ionosphere. In response to tremendous interest from citizen scientists in each of these groups, we teamed up with HamSCI to bring these communities together under the theme “The Auroral Connection”. As attendee Phil Dolber (ham radio code W6WBT) wrote:

Wow! Great job…. I really enjoyed being able to attend. This is my silver lining to this Pandemic, I would not have been able to travel to Pennsylvania to participate. I want to get more involved, also keep in mind all the NASA Centers have amateur radio clubs. I will reach out to Liz on this same subject. I will share this with our club and reach out to the other NASA clubs about this as well.

As an organization, HamSCI works to connect scientists with citizen scientists to advance research, encourage new technologies, and create educational opportunities. In the case of aurora science, teaming up allows us to investigate both the optical and radio aspects of aurora. The HamSCI Workshop 2020 is its third annual event, which brings together citizen scientists and professional scientists—the first of its kind in heliophysics! The annual HamSCI Workshop provided the perfect opportunity to introduce citizen scientists and scientists from the aurora and ham radio communities and build connections for future collaboration. 

What is Ham Radio?

Amateur radio, or “ham radio,” is a hobby for radio enthusiasts all over the globe. In short, operators use the radio frequency spectrum to send signals and messages to one another. They may have their own equipment or use equipment through local ham radio clubs. There are over 760,000 amateur radio operators (called “hams”) in the United States, and three million worldwide. Each operator is licensed by their national government after passing a set of educational exams. Every ham receives a government-issued identifying call sign that consists of numbers and letters: for example, HamSCI’s Dr. Nathaniel Frissell’s call sign is W2NAF. The call sign contains code that allows other hams to approximate Nathaniel’s location. 

There are a number of reasons hams take up amateur radio. Some are interested in helping out in emergencies; when infrastructure stops working, ham radio operators create a backup communications network. Others are interested in “contesting,” or radio sport: taking on various challenges, and sometimes partnering with scientists to gather data. Another interest area is “DXing,” or “distancing,” where operators aim to communicate with people located far away. Groups like Aurorasaurus are interested in ham radio data from a space weather and space science perspective. 

Roughly speaking, ham radio operators communicate over long distances by bouncing radio signals off the variable Earth’s ionosphere, so ionospheric disturbances like aurora or a solar eclipse affect ham radio! 

A colorful graph, curved slightly on the X axis, shows a Y axis of Altitude in km, and an X axis of Ground Range. A color gradient labeled 1-7 represents Plasma Frequency (mhz). A red line from point 0,0 gently arcs up to about 100 km in altitude, which has a plasma density of between 3 and 4, and back down to about 1750,0. This shows the radio wave traveling almost 1750 km.

Diagram of a radio wave (red line) bouncing off the ionosphere to travel a distance of nearly 1750 km. Used with permission from Dr. Nathaniel Frissell (W2NAF).

In his opening remarks, Nathaniel played a sound clip (below) of aurora distorting radio signals—something hams say sounds like “gargling underwater.” In short, the auroral zone provides a way to use ham radio for remote sensing into space. By watching how ham radio connects through the layers of the neutral, non-charged atmosphere and the electrically-charged ionosphere, we can better understand the physics of these systems.

The sound of aurora distorting radio waves, recorded at McMurdo station in Antarctica on Dec 27, 2014 on 14 Mhz. Used with permission from Dr. Nathaniel Frissell (W2NAF).

The Personal Space Weather Station (PSWS) Project

A new citizen science initiative, this project aims to create a network of inexpensive stations that can make ground-based measurements of the space environment. The data will be put together and made available for other citizen science research. Most development is currently taking place through the Tucson Amateur Packet Radio (TAPR) TangerineSDR project, a software designed radio (SDR) project that is supporting the Personal Space Weather Station (PSWS). Click here to find out how you can get involved. 

The project is led by PI Nathaniel Frissell at The University of Scranton, in collaboration with Case Western Reserve University, the University of Alabama, the New Jersey Institute of Technology Center for Solar Terrestrial Research (NJIT-CSTR) in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Haystack Observatory and the Tucson Amateur Packet Radio, Inc. (TAPR). Aurorasaurus is looking into ways to collaborate!

Workshop Sessions

The conference was fully recorded, and is available to watch on the HamSCI YouTube page. You can also find recordings of each specific presentation linked from the Workshop Agenda

A Zoom grid shows names and smiling faces

Screenshot of a HamSCI Workshop session, courtesy of Dr. Liz MacDonald

Aurorasaurus gave several presentations on Saturday:

  • Liz gave an invited keynote talk called “Aurorasaurus: Citizen Science Observations of the Aurora.” Click here for a pdf of her slides.
  • Laura gave a poster called “Into the Ionosphere: Real-Time Aurora Mapping Through Citizen Science.” Click here for video and a pdf of her poster. Laura also chaired the poster/demo session. 
  • On behalf of Dr. Michael Hunnekuhl, Liz gave the poster “An Aurorasaurus Citizen Science Database of Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement (STEVE) Observations.” Click here for video and a pdf of the poster. 
  • Vincent Ledvina, a sophomore at the University of North Dakota, gave a poster titled “Construction of an Aurora Camera in North Dakota to Aid in Citizen Science and Space Weather Applications.” Click here for video and a pdf of his poster. 

Full videos of the workshop will soon be online. Tune in on the HamSCI YouTube page to find out more about how ham radio and auroras connect!

The Show Must Go On: Successes and Lessons Learned

A computer screen shows several windows open. In the center is a Zoom chat meeting with a grid of participants' images

Screenshot of the HamSCI Workshop 2020 from Dr. Nathaniel Frissell (W2NAF)

Within a few short weeks, HamSCI moved an in-person conference entirely to a digital format. In doing so, we built on ideas from the American Geophysical Union’s Virtual Poster Showcase, the National Archives’ Virtual Genealogy Fair, the University of Arizona’s Virtual Poster Student Showcase, The American Library Association’s Distance Library Instruction Virtual Poster Session, the American Physical Society, and “How to Run a Free Academic Online Conference.” 

Here are some things we learned:

  • It’s important to ask for help. With an increased workload, Nathaniel and Liz brought Laura from Aurorasaurus in to help organize and chair the poster sessions. Panelists also pitched in as moderators. Coming together to make HamSCI happen emphasized the feelings of group creativity and collaboration that are so central to citizen science. 
  • With large numbers of participants, it is very difficult for moderators to follow the questions rapidly appearing in the Zoom chat. Provide a collaborative document, like a Google doc, for participants to enter their questions. If any questions aren’t answered during the Q&A, presenters can go back and answer them later. 
  • During presentations, ask people to turn off their video cameras to preserve bandwidth
  • Be flexible and have backup plans. Make sure your chairs have the ability to stream others’ slides in case of technical difficulties.
  • The online format provides the opportunity to create a glossary that updates in real time for participants to use
  • Pro tip: in Zoom screensharing there is an option to optimize for fullscreen video. This reduces picture quality to sync sound better. If showing detailed diagrams or posters, the setting blurs out detail so is not recommended. 

The workshop was a huge success, with 290 attendees from 6 continents, comprising 23 countries and Puerto Rico. While we learned a tremendous amount about ham radio, aurora science, and citizen science, we were most grateful to learn that in times of emergency, communities can come together—not only to advance science, but to find comfort and strength in one another’s virtual presence.



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