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Dr. Philip Erickson, W1PJE, New Director of MIT Haystack Observatory


ARRL Member and active radio amateur Dr. Philip Erickson, W1PJE, is the new director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Haystack Observatory.

The prestigious scientific appointment is the continuation of a radio interest that began in his youth. "I started as a shortwave listener in the mid-1970's as a middle school student. So, in some sense, I was always fooling with antennas in the back yard and trying to understand why signals got to me at different times -- why were they different in the day and at night? What was the farthest place I could hear, or the closest place?"  

That early interest led him to an electrical engineering degree and ultimately, a doctorate in space plasma physics from Cornell University that he earned in 1998. Erickson was first licensed as a ham only about 10 years ago, but he says the professional hardware he worked with daily scratched the itch until he could gain amateur privileges. Erickson enjoys homebrewing gear, learning from the foundations of vintage equipment, and using amateur radio in the scientific space. "An intense interest to me that crosses the boundary of what I do professionally and what I do as a radio amateur is what's happening with the HamSCI Collective... Can you use the observations that are already being made in the process of conducting the hobby and extract information from them? It turns out you can -- there's a lot of ionospheric information buried in there," he said.  

The mission of the Haystack Observatory is to develop technology for radio science applications, to study the structure of our galaxy and the larger universe, to advance scientific knowledge of our planet and its space environment, and to contribute to the education of future scientists and engineers, according to MIT. The facility is home to research projects that span spectrum from VLF to 388 GHz.  

"We are almost a completely radio and radar observatory... We have a geospace group, which is most-closely associated with ARRL type ideas: the dynamics of the ionosphere and neutral part of the atmosphere, all the way out into near-Earth space. We are an observational group, so we use a bunch of different tools -- radars, radios, sometimes data from satellites, and mostly data from ground-based observations."  

Erickson enjoys explaining to the uninitiated that amateur radio is not only still an active hobby, but that it is an important space for discovery. "You learn a lot about many different aspects of technical and science work [in ham radio]," he said.  

While his day job keeps him on the edge of radio technology, Erickson is glad to see amateur radio is keeping pace. He says the coding of WSJT-X digital weak-signal modes such as FT8 and WSPR created by Dr. Joe Taylor, K1JT, are more advanced than most hams realize.  

"If you were to go to an electrical engineering class, that's what you would see as the edge of how to pack information into a very small bandwidth. I enjoy pointing that out to people and getting them to understand that this other modulation mode is just one of the other palettes that are available."



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