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HamSCI Founder Nathaniel Frissell, W2NAF, Wins $1.3 Million Ionosphere Study Grant


Nathaniel Frissell, W2NAF, now a University of Scranton physics and electrical engineering professor, has won a $1.3 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to study weather effects in the ionosphere by leveraging a network of amateur radio stations. Frissell is perhaps best known within the amateur radio community as the founder of HamSCI, the Ham Radio Science Citizen Investigation initiative. The Distributed Arrays of Small Instruments (DASI) project will be implemented over 3 years. As principal investigator, Frissell — a space physicist — will head a collaborative team that will develop ground-based space science observation instruments and software. His research effort will recruit multiple universities and radio amateurs to operate a network of personal space weather stations.

“I’m very excited,” Frissell told ARRL. “This grant is extremely exciting for both ham radio and ionospheric research. Perhaps more than the money, it means that the NSF is recognizing the good work that we, as hams, are doing and the contribution we can make in the future.”

Frissell said the grant demonstrates that the scientific community is taking amateur radio seriously. “This is great for ham radio, as it provides yet another avenue for us to contribute to the art and science of radio in a meaningful way,” he said.

The space weather equipment will be developed at two levels of sophistication — one at a low-cost, easy-to-use level for radio amateurs, and another, more complex version for university partners that will allow the collection of additional data.

“The equipment and network allows us to measure and characterize ionospheric and geomagnetic short-term, small-scale variability on a large geographic scale in order to understand the response of the ionosphere to sources from above (space weather) and below (atmospheric forcing),” Frissell explained in his grant proposal. “By designing personal space weather station variants at multiple price points, open sourcing the hardware and software, and directly engaging with the ham radio community, this project maximizes the chances of widespread adoption of this system.” Frissell intends to focus his recruitment efforts through HamSCI and TAPR.

Frissell says measuring and better understanding modulations in the ionosphere is important, because these changes can affect Earth- and space-based radio signals, which can, in turn, affect satellite communication, GPS systems, HF radio, and more. In his earlier study, “Modeling Amateur Radio Soundings of the Ionospheric Response to the 2017 Great American Eclipse,” published in Geophysical Research Letters, Frissell measured changes in the ionosphere during the solar eclipse, using data collected by participating hams who engaged in the Solar Eclipse QSO Party (SEQP). His new initiative expands this model and will develop new equipment to collect and analyze additional data.

Collaborators in the NSF-funded DASI project include William Engelke, AB4EJ, and Travis Atkison of the University of Alabama; David Kazdan, AD8Y, and Soumyajit Mandal, AC8WY, of Case Western Reserve University; Hyomin Kim, KD2MCR, of the New Jersey Institute of Technology; Phil Erickson, W1PJE, of MIT’s Haystack Observatory, and Scott Cowling, WA2DFI, of TAPR and Zephyr Engineering.

A graduate of Montclair State University and Virginia Tech, Frissell joined the faculty at the University of Scranton this fall, after a stint on the New Jersey Institute of Technology faculty.

Frissell told ARRL that the 2020 HamSCI workshop will take place March 20 – 21 at the University of Scranton. He’s also hoping to take advantage of the opportunity the grant provides to establish a ham radio club at the University of Scranton.