New research site for African skies

 Subscribe to ECE ILLINOIS News

By Jonathan Damery, ECE ILLINOIS
January 16, 2014

  • A team led by Associate Professor Jonathan Makela has installed RENOIR, an ionospheric observation system, at a Moroccan observatory.
  • The installation will allow researchers to study ionospheric weather patterns at the transition zone between low and mid-latitudes, and it will also facilitate new scientific collaborations between researchers from Illinois and Morocco.
  • The Moroccan Minister of Higher Education, Soumia Benkhaldoun, visited the installation, and the event was covered on national news.
The Oukaïmeden Observatory is perched high in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. At 2,750 meters, the elevation is so significant, compared to surrounding foothills, that when three graduate students and a postdoc working with Associate Professor Jonathan J. Makela brought bags of chips from the nearest city, Marrakesh, along with luggage and supplies, the bags swelled like balloons. “Two of them exploded once we walked into the observatory,” recalled graduate student Daniel Fisher. “The second we stepped in the observatory, it was high enough, they just popped.”
 
The team was there for an installation of RENOIR, an observation system designed by Makela and a collaborator at Clemson University, John Meriwether, which can observe the ionospheric layer of the Earth’s outer atmosphere (spanning between 100 and 1000 km). This installation, located about 31 degrees north of the geographic equator, will be used to monitor ionospheric
The Oukaïmeden Observatory: the site of the RENOIR installation. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Makela.
The Oukaïmeden Observatory: the site of the RENOIR installation. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Makela.
weather patterns at the transition zone between low and mid-latitudes. “We’re studying global phenomena, a global system, and having measurements only from one part of the globe doesn’t really get you the full picture,” Makela said. “What we’re trying to do is create more and more of these measurements around the world.”
 
The Illinois team spent seven days at the observatory, installing the equipment and training students and faculty members from Marrakesh’s Cadi Ayyad University on operation and maintenance procedures. The Moroccan team will use the equipment to initiate a space weather research program of their own, starting with dissertation projects for several students. Makela’s team will collaborate with them on data analysis and will use corresponding data retrieved from two RENOIR sites in Brazil and six sites with related instrumentation in the United States (known as NATION) to study larger weather patterns.
 
The system comprises Makela’s custom imaging equipment, PICASSO, which provides a horizon-to-horizon view of the sky and a Fabry-Pérot interferometer that measures the temperatures and winds at an altitude of 250 km. In combination, the system is capable of imaging the charged particles that compose the ionosphere (collectively known as plasma), as well as the composite movement of the so-called neutral winds, which have no charge. 
 
While the neutral components of the ionosphere are about five orders more dense than the charged components, there are very few ways of observing them; most observation techniques are capable of detecting charged particles only. “We’ve been making all of these measurements of the tail of the elephant, and we don’t know what the elephant is. So there’s been more and more pressure from scientists to go after the neutrals,” Makela said. “What we’re trying to do is deploy instrumentation around the world to really understand how the neutral atmosphere reacts on a global scale and how it drives the plasma.” 
 
With the data coming from the Moroccan research station, the most immediate application will be establishing reliable models of the space weather phenomena. Ionospheric storms can disrupt radio and satellite communications, so telecommunication companies and GPS users are especially interested in this information. 
 
Existing models of the neutral winds are somewhat like rain forecasts in the Farmers’ Almanac, Makela said. The Farmers’ Almanac offers generalities—May will be wetter than usual—but never specifics—it will rain two inches on May 10. “So it’s the same sort of thing [with the neutral winds]”, he said. “We know they tend to blow from the summer to the winter atmosphere, but all of the interesting dynamics, the day-to-day changes…we have very few examples to be able to understand that.”
 
One ionospheric weather pattern of particular interest are “spread F” formations, which develop at the magnetic equator as bubbles of charged material that rise through the ionosphere
The Illinois and Moroccan teams. In the front row: Jonathan Makela (third, L-R), Soumia Benkhaldoun, the Moroccan Minister of Higher Education (fourth). In the back row: Daniel Fisher (second, L-R), Brian Harding (fourth), and Tim Duly (sixth). Not pictured from the Illinois team: Pierdavide Coisson. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Makela.
The Illinois and Moroccan teams. In the front row: Jonathan Makela (third, L-R), Soumia Benkhaldoun, the Moroccan Minister of Higher Education (fourth). In the back row: Daniel Fisher (second, L-R), Brian Harding (fourth), and Tim Duly (sixth). Not pictured from the Illinois team: Pierdavide Coisson. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Makela.
and then spread north- and southward. “We actually already have an example where, at the southern edge of our camera system, you can see a bubble pass by. And so for that line of inquiry, we will be able to study the structure as it grows from where it develops to where it’s imposing itself on the background atmosphere.”
 
The installation was facilitated, in part, by the United Nation’s International Space Weather Initiative, which aims to instrument parts of the globe that haven’t been covered previously. Travel funding was granted by Illinois Strategic International Partnerships—a university program that facilitates international collaborations—and the National Science Foundation’s International Program. Moroccan government support was also provided.  
 
On the sixth day of the installation, Soumia Benkhaldoun, the Moroccan Minister of Higher Education, arrived for a site visit, along with a film crew for the national news. (See Arabic language news footage, here.) “She was very interested in what was going on, and was pleased to see that there was interaction, not only between faculty, but also the students…They’ll be interested to see if and how they can get students over here, if not for a degree, then for a semester as a visiting scientist or something like that,” Makela recalled. 
 
As the collaboration between the institutions grows, so to will the lines of inquiries the researchers are able to pursue. “We’ll be working with the graduate students to process the data, and try to uncover some science questions that will evolve,” graduate student Tim Duly said. The new data will complete ionospheric weather models for a region that has been poorly documented in the past, and postdoctoral researcher Pierdavide Coisson agreed that this will lead to compelling new research. The trip started with bursting chip bags. “Now,” Coisson said, “[the research questions] are going to explode.” 
 

Editor's note: media inquiries should be directed to Brad Petersen, Director of Communications, at bradp@illinois.edu or (217) 244-6376.

 Subscribe to ECE ILLINOIS News