HAMNET Report 14th March 2021

I told you last week that the Jonkershoek Mountain Challenge trail run would take place on 22nd May, seeing that Covid restrictions had been relaxed a bit. Well the plans have been scuppered, and not by Covid. A huge mountain fire in the Jonkershoek area about a week ago has so damaged the environment that Cape Nature has decided to close the reserve for at least 4 months to allow the vegetation to recover. So either the trail run will be postponed, or possibly cancelled altogether. Our HAMNET volunteers are highly disappointed by this, but understand the importance of the recovery of the fynbos there.

Registration is now open for the 2021 HamSCI Workshop, Friday and Saturday, March 19 – 20. The theme of this year’s workshop is mid-latitude ionospheric science. The University of Scranton will serve as host for the Zoom virtual event, sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The program will include guest speakers, poster presentations, and demonstrations.

The workshop will also serve as a team meeting for the HamSCI Personal Space Weather Station project, funded by an NSF grant to University of Scranton physics and electrical engineering professor Nathaniel Frissell, W2NAF. The project seeks to harness the power of an amateur radio network to better understand and measure the effects of weather in the upper levels of Earth’s atmosphere.

The workshop’s keynote address on the “History of Radio” will be given by Elizabeth Bruton, curator of technology and engineering at the Science Museum of London. She will discuss the history, science, technology, and licensing of radio amateur communities from the early 1900s to the present, exploring how individuals and communities contributed to “citizen science” long before the term entered popular usage in the 1990s. Bruton has been a non-licensed member of Oxford and District Amateur Radio Society since 2014 and has served as the society’s web manager since 2015.

Michael Ruohoniemi, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech and principal investigator of the Virginia Tech SuperDARN Initiative, will review the physics of the mid-latitude ionosphere and discuss ways in which the amateur radio community can contribute to advancing scientific understanding and technical capabilities.

Joe Dzekevich, K1YOW, will present “Amateur Radio Observations and The Science of Mid-latitude Sporadic E.”

Now remember all of South Africa falls within the mid-latitude description, so this kind of scientific research can be done by each and every one of us. So go to hamsci.org/hamsci2021 and register to be included in the Zoom conference next weekend. Registration is free.

We’ve all seen pictures of hurricanes when they batter a coastline somewhere on the planet. But what if we told you the same thing happened in space?

Writing in Gentside this week, David Stein says that typical hurricanes are easy to spot on satellite images: swirling clouds surround a quieter ‘eye.’ These storms typically form in the lowest layer of the atmosphere, closer to the Earth’s surface, and they trigger heavy rains and high winds.

Space hurricanes are totally different beasts altogether.

A study published last month in the journal Nature Communications describes the first space hurricane ever observed. In August 2014, satellites observed a swirling mass with a calm centre more than 200 kilometres above the North Pole. While ordinary hurricanes stir air, this space hurricane was a vortex of plasma, a type of extremely hot charged gas found throughout the solar system around strong magnetic fields. And instead of rain, this storm brought electron showers.

Michael Lockwood, an astronomer at the University of Reading (England), and co-author of the new study, said in a press release:

“Until now, it was not clear whether space plasma hurricanes existed, so to prove it with such a striking observation was incredible.”

The space hurricane was nearly 1,000 kilometres wide and was high in the sky – it formed in the ionosphere, between 80 and 965 kilometres above sea level. Michael Lockwood and his co-authors used satellite data to create a 3D model of the storm.

The space hurricane lasted eight hours, swirling counter-clockwise. According to the researchers, it had several spiral arms sticking out of its centre, much like a spiral galaxy. By connecting satellite data to a computer model, Michael Lockwood and his colleagues were able to reproduce the storm and determine its cause. They found that charged particles emitted from the sun’s upper atmosphere, the corona, were responsible for the storm.

This constant flow of solar particles and coronal plasma is known as the solar wind. It travels at about 1.5 million kilometres per hour.

These space hurricanes must be created by the exceptionally large and rapid transfer of energy from the solar wind and charged particles into the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

When the solar wind reaches the Earth, it meets the magnetic field of the planet. The Earth has such a field due to the swirling of liquid iron and nickel in its outer core, and it generates electric currents. The magnetosphere shields the planet from deadly radiation from the sun, but also retains a tiny layer of plasma from this solar wind.

In general, solar winds bounce of this protective sheath. But sometimes the charged particles and the incoming plasma interact with the trapped plasma or the electric currents that generate the field. Such interactions create disturbances in the magnetosphere.

The 2014 space hurricane was the result of one of these disturbances.

The study’s authors suggested that an interaction between the Earth’s magnetic field and parts of the solar magnetic field – carried by the solar wind – contributed to the formation of the hurricane.

Usually, magnetic fields do not mix. But if they get closer, parts of the fields can realign and even merge, forming a new pattern of magnetic energy. This is probably what happened on the day of the space storm: an influx of solar wind energy formed a new configuration above the Earth’s magnetic north pole.

The storm acted as a channel from space to Earth’s atmosphere, channelling some electrons beyond the planet’s protective cover.

This shower of particles could have wreaked havoc on our high-frequency radio communications, our radar detection systems or our satellite technology, according to the study’s authors. This is because charged solar particles that infiltrate the Earth’s magnetic field can cause malfunctions in the computers and circuits of satellites and the International Space Station. Fortunately, in this case, no problem was observed.

This is Dave Reece ZS1DFR reporting for HAMNET in South Africa.