CU Denver students at Arecibo Observatory
CU Denver electrical engineering students who visited the Arecibo Observatory include, from left, Ashanthi Maxworth, James Bittle, Poorya Hosseini and Selena Leitner.

Giant green lasers? Bouncing signals off the ionosphere? Mind control? All just another day’s work at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Well, except for the mind control.

The Arecibo Observatory is the site of the enormous telescope featured in the James Bond movie “GoldenEye.” The telescope is equally impressive in real life as it is in the film, however, there aren’t any evil henchmen lurking underneath it. The facility was built in the 1960s and conducts research in three major areas: radio astronomy, atmospheric science and radar astronomy.

In a recent trip to the observatory, five students from CU Denver’s College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) participated in an incoherent scatter radar (ISR) summer school. The electrical engineering students met with students from the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Florida, and other schools to learn about the Arecibo facility and the fundamentals of using ISR.

Besides an ISR, the observatory’s primary tool, the facility boasts a 1,000-foot radio telescope and a planetary telescope. Alongside a range of LIDAR instruments (the giant green laser), the observatory offers the ideal setting for studies of the upper atmosphere. The focus at Arecibo and other facilities using ISR is to study the ionosphere, “where our earthly atmosphere ends and what is often called ‘outer space’ begins,” explained Mark Golkowski, PhD, an associate professor in Electrical Engineering in CEAS.

ISR summer program

At the summer program, CU Denver students enjoyed networking with other researchers and hearing lectures by principal researchers at other facilities. “Everything we were learning was relevant to what we were doing in class,” said student Selena Leitner. “We were learning how to look at live data, and what Arecibo data looks like since it’s such a massive facility.”

The program also gave students an invaluable hands-on experience using the kind of equipment housed at Arecibo and other research facilities. “Learning about ISR was a new experience for everyone, but the lecturing researchers were all very friendly and approachable,” said Ashanthi Maxworth, a doctoral student and lecturer at CU Denver. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Encouraging researchers

CU Denver student James Bittle
James Bittle, a CU Denver electrical engineering student, climbs the stairs at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

The Arecibo facility encourages researchers to submit project proposals and contribute to the advancement of science. Students also had three days to run their own experiments using the facility’s high-frequency (HF) heating technology, which uses electromagnetic waves at a different frequency than ISR.

CU Denver student Jamie Bittle ran an experiment observing atmospheric changes at sunrise. “When the sun rises the number of electrons in the atmosphere increases, creating really interesting data,” Bittle said. “For part of the experiment I collected data from a boat out in the ocean where there is less electrical noise and the changes at sunrise are easier to observe.”

Building communication networks

Many changes in the upper atmosphere are dynamic and fluctuating, Leitner said. “The kinds of energy change we were studying already occur naturally, but by using the ISR we can examine the atmosphere in a more controlled and predictable way,” she said. Leitner studied solar flares and how they affect communication signals in the upper atmosphere.

Just like the upper atmosphere, the research at Arecibo is dynamic and fluctuating. “Engineering subjects are merging so that you no longer study one subject in isolation,” Maxworth said. Researchers from around the world and different backgrounds converge to study the phenomena of the atmosphere. Building networks of communication are more important than ever.

The ISR summer program granted CU Denver students the opportunity to build these networks with peers from other schools as well as leading researchers. “I encourage students to participate in activities like this,” Maxworth said. “Work closely with faculty to get to know their specialties and explore the unique opportunities CU Denver provides.”

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