Ham radio operators to test the ionosphere globally during eclipse

An NJIT researcher throws a global ham radio ‘party’ to study the eclipse


When a solar eclipse plunges the country into darkness Aug. 21, Nathaniel Frissell will be stationed directly along the shadow’s path, leading one of the largest ionospheric experiments in the history of space science from the back porch of a cabin in Gilbertsville, Kentucky.

With a 102 ft. wire antenna, he will contact a network of ham radio operators he’s assembled around the world to test the strength and reach of their high frequency signals as one measure of the eclipse’s impact on Earth’s atmosphere. More than a week in advance, nearly 200 operators – from New Jersey, to Tennessee, to Wyoming in the U.S. and at far-flung locales such as Chile, Greece and India – are already signed on to be “citizen-scientists” that day by recording their contacts with one another. Their number grows daily.

“Among other phenomena, we’re hoping to use our radio transmissions to identify how much of the ionosphere is impacted by the eclipse and how long the effects last,” explains Frissell, an assistant research professor of physics at NJIT’s Center for Solar Terrestrial Research and a sophisticated practitioner of ham radio who is intent on elevating the technology’s role in space science research. He will share data and analysis from the day at the American Geophysical Union annual meeting in December.

Frissell has been preparing for this rare event for more than two years. While a Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech, he founded the Ham Radio Science Citizen Investigation (HamSCI), an organization that connects professional researchers such as space physicists and astronomers with the amateur radio community. By merging their data, the different groups will be able to construct a comprehensive picture of atmospheric effects caused by space weather events ranging from the solar eclipse later this month to more common phenomena, such as solar flares. In 2014, he first demonstrated the use of ham radio data by showing the effects of an X-class solar flare on high frequency communications.

On NJIT’s campus, members of Frissell’s team of undergraduate ham radio operators, including Spencer Gunning, Joshua Vega and Joshua Katz, have been constructing a website and developing data analysis tools that will allow them to gather and interpret the observations generated during the eclipse. Hundreds of hams around the world are planning on participating in this event, and they will be generating a large and diverse set of measurements.

Members of NJIT’s ham radio club preparing for the eclipse. From left to right – Nathaniel Frissell, Peter Teklinski, director of Core Systems and Telecommunications for NJIT and club adviser, Spencer Gunning (standing) Joshua Vega (sitting) and Joshua Katz (standing).

Katz, along with Shaheda Shaik, a physics major and student researcher at NJIT’s Center for Solar-Terrestrial Research, will give a talk on the eclipse at the United Astronomy Clubs of New Jersey (UACNJ) observatory at Jenny Jump State Forest Saturday, Aug. 19. Katz will return to the observatory Aug. 21 with other members of the NJIT K2MFF Amateur Radio Club to participate in the HamSCI Eclipse Ham Radio experiments. They plan on operating outside so they can view the eclipse while using their radios.

“We’ll be participating in an international data-collection effort, learning more about the space weather effects of the eclipse, exposing the general public to amateur radio and watching a beautiful once-in-a-lifetime solar event all on the same day,” Katz says. “That’s more excitement than programmers and data analysts like me are usually allowed to have in a single sitting!”

New Jersey will experience a partial eclipse – about 75 percent shadow cover that day – beginning shortly after 1 p.m. Visitors can participate that day in UACNJ’s Eclipse Observation event. (See http://www.uacnj.org for details.)

Frissell calls the eclipse “a spectacular event that has gripped the public’s imagination.”

“What’s exciting from a researcher’s perspective is that people have access to tools such as digital radios and computers that are connected in ways they weren’t in the past, allowing us to make observations and then collect and share them,” he notes. “For us, this is an unusual opportunity to learn things we don’t know about the ionosphere, the electrified region of Earth’s upper atmosphere formed when ultraviolet light from the Sun dislodges electrons from neutral particles such as oxygen, nitrogen and helium. This is one of the very few times we’re able to conduct a controlled experiment around a space weather event. Normally, we have no advanced knowledge over when, where and how they happen.”

Ham radio operators are acutely interested in the ionosphere, in part because it allows them to communicate with each other across thousands of miles and despite the Earth’s curvature, which disrupts normal line-of-sight communications. Their high-frequency radio waves bounce off the upper atmosphere and are refracted back down on the other side of the globe. The composition of the ionosphere at different levels affects their ability to transmit.

“A station in Texas may not normally be able to talk to one in North Dakota on a particular frequency at a certain time of day. However, the eclipse will change the ionospheric state and possibly create communication paths that do not normally exist. We will be looking for those changes, among other impacts,” he notes. “If you suddenly alter the ionosphere as happens during an eclipse, by reducing the number of ions or changing the temperature, for example, does it create waves or instabilities? How far can these effects be detected?”

A major source of HamSCI data comes from the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN). The Reverse Beacon Network is an automated radio (1.8 – 144 MHz) receiving network created and maintained voluntarily by ham radio operators. The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) is working with HamSCI to organize and promote a Solar Eclipse QSO Party, a contest-like operating event designed to get hams on the air during the eclipse.


BTW in case you don’t know where the moniker “ham” comes from, it’s short for “hamography” i.e.using code for communications -KA9NWM


43 thoughts on “Ham radio operators to test the ionosphere globally during eclipse

    • How do you use a word that does not exist? Of course there is a word hamography even if it is argot used by the Ham radio community. Please look up the word “Neologism” and understand that new words are invented as a matter of natural language evolution. Some words become formalized, and other words remain obscure. You could yell foul if it was a Humpty Dumpty type usage of a word, but not in this case. I’m not trying to bust your chops, but only clarify the issue.

      • Richmond
        Fully agree.
        Our language – English – US or UK or Singlish or Aussie or whatever -i s a living tongue. I did not know the word ‘hamography’ before. But if it gets accepted [senso latu] – let’s go with it!

        English is the language that pursues other tongues down dark alley-ways and mugs them for useful words.
        And has ever been.
        Easy to learn – up to a point – but horrific to cover irregular verbs . . . . .


      • The problem is “ham radio” was in common use by the 1930s. How about you produce a single citation for the use of “hamography” to describe communication by Morse code, or any type of communication whatever. Take your time.

        I was always told “ham” was a Cockney- influenced pronunciation of “am”, short for “amateur”. “Amateur radio” is how world governing bodies like FCC and ITU have referred to personal non-commercial radio licensing practically since the first administration of the radio frequency spectrum. Look up “ARRL history”, all will be revealed.

    • I’ve had my amateur radio license since 1992 and have never heard the word hamography or anyone claim that HAM came from that word.

      • My Dad was a licensed amateur radio operator and enthusiast – a ham – as well as a professional in the Signal Corps in the US Army, since before the sixties. I’ve been a SWL (Shortwave Listener) since the 1960s and I also have never once heard the word “hamography” or that claim. This is just something someone made up – like so much on the internet nowadays. “Never trust what you read on a blog.” — Abraham Lincoln

    • Leo

      That is a supportable notion, and it is true that professional telegraphers viewed incompetent Morse coders as ‘ham-fisted’ for their inconsistent cadence.

      However there was an amateur station known as HAM for

      A radio station run by Hyman, Bob Almy and Peggie Murray was known as HAM radio. It was Hyman, then a Harvard student, who made a speech to Congress which ultimately blocked legislation giving the whole frequency spectrum to the military. The station name HAM (self-assigned) was picked up as referring to the whole movement.

      “The 1909 Wireless Registry list in the May edition of Modern Electrics listed Earl C. Hawkins of Minneapolis, Minnesota, as operating with the call sign “H.A.M.”, which was likely assigned by the magazine.” (Wikipedia)

      Thus there is reasonable evidence that the name HAM (not ‘ham’) was used early, and refers to the three people who ran the station. The term HAM radio is widely used by licensed operators, and the term ham radio is widely used in error. There is no such thing as a ‘ham radio operator’, though high quality Morse code skills are often complimented with, “You have a good fist.”

      VE3NLD/3DA0AC ex-VE3IHE/3D6AC

    • My dad graduated top of his class in Navy radio school in 1942, and was retained as Morse code instructor for a year until his request for combat duty was granted. He could copy over 80 words per minute of five-letter code groups easily, and 100 wpm of plain text, all while listening to music on one side of his “cans” (headphones). He said he could tell who was sending the code from their unique “fist” – their characteristic cadence and “swing”. Dad taught me the code when I was 10, and being a musician like him, I picked it right up. Later In about 1980 we both got our Extra Class ham licenses, requiring passing a “mere” 20 wpm code test. I wouldn’t want to have to pass it now, but once you are fluent you never really lose it, like riding a bicycle or speaking a language daily. I never encountered the term “hamography” until this very day, and I don’t believe it is has anything to do with ham radio.

  1. I thought it cam from the use of “ham” as a derogatory remark for an “actor of low grade” and was applied to amateur radio operators by professionals for the same reason.

    • Story I heard was that it came from the name of a book called “Home Amateur Mechanic” [HAM] which published plans for such things a boats, small steam engines, pumps and radios – both transmitters and receivers. Although some HAM’s claim this is not the origin of that term because there were no magazines with that name, many of the Popular Mechanics magazines advertized books for sale in the back pages. Such as “Make it Yourself,” “How to build Boats,” “Photography,” and even radios. I have a copy of “Amateur Craftsman Encyclopedia of Things to Make” circa 1937 that has the complete schematics for a “Portable Short-Wave Radio and Transmitter” published by Popular Science. So this origin could be possible.

      • A radio station run by Hyman, Bob Almy and Peggie Murray was known as HAM radio, before WWI.

    • And all along I thought it came from the use of hamsters to generate the power they use. Learn something very day. (smile)

  2. What is so special about this eclipse? There was a total one just a few years ago in Southern CA. It looked like dusk for about 1/2 hour and no one cared. This one folks are all going nuts.

    • I don’t think there has been a total eclipse in recent times. Partial, but not total. Eclipse2017.org says there were a few states in the past that had total eclipse exposure, but California was not one.

      There are two big deals:
      1. The path of totality goes all the way across the USA, which it has not done since 1918.
      2. There’s lots and lots of money to be made by hyping this. It is expected that where I live in Wyoming the city of Casper will have 35,000 visitors. Casper’s population is just under 60,000. Merchants are selling t-shirts, mugs, all kinds of stuff, planning events, and on and on and on.

      Personally, I’d rather see an eclipse in a remote place where the natives have no idea what it is (assuming there still exists such a place). That would be interesting. Mostly the people, the eclipse somewhat. So much better than the over-commercialization here. I’m hiding out at my home and avoiding town from now until after August 23rd at least. It will be a zoo. (Some businesses are closed on Aug. 21 to cut back on traffic problems.)

    • marque2

      Do not underestimate the science of HAM radio enthusiasts. Virtually everything discovered about high fidelity sound, radio communications, packet radio, the internet, slow scan tv and all manner of electronics related to transmission of information by radio waves and wires was invented by HAM radio operators. It was HAMs who listened to the communications between the Apollo missions and the ground using circularly polarised antennae that proved the missions really went to the moon. More than a 120 satellites have been used by HAMs, the first dedicated one launched in 1961. It was a flying beacon. The first that allowed two-way communication (a flying repeater) was in 1965, one of the OSCAR satellites.

      The fact that they are running a global scale experiment to quantify the effect of blocking the sun for a few minutes will add to the profound knowledge they have already assembled. Citizen science has been alive and well in HAM circles for decades.

      • Two of the hams in the Amateur Radio Club I belonged to in NJ worked at Bell Labs NJ. Don’t remember their names but they were deeply involved with the Cell Phone work at Bell Labs. 2 Meter repeater coverage was great in that area of NJ, with antennas on the nearby mountains and foothills. My 2 Meter rig worked as well as the then available, operator assisted, trunk size car phones. Most people I called from my car did not know is was in my car till I told them and then they did not believe me. Greatly enjoyed their demonstrations on the work/research they were doing. Their car trunk had two antennas, traps providing dual frequency to offer duplex voice over a typical telephone handset. As I remember though it did not use a carbon mike like the typical landline, but did have a push to talk switch in a very convenient place on the handset grip. That was at least 35 years ago – 1982-3. I am sure they pushed the knowledge they learned from the 2 meter repeater to telephone landline into their work at Bell Labs.

      • usurbrain

        Well said. VE3RPT in Toronto in the 70’s had a microwave link to Rochester NY across the lake called ‘the patch’ permitting phone calls to be made from cars in Toronto. It was because the communication was from car to home only (via a link to a local call in Toronto) that my mother got her HAM License to be able to call back!

        The invention of packet radio to send error-free slow scan TV pictures was of course the ‘invention of the internet’ in more ways than one. Error correction and CRC methods are common now even on small industrial gas cells (bane of my life – thank goodness for kids who can program).

        Even in the 70’s there was a 2 metre repeater in 3D6-land though I only used HF. Knowledge about the E and F layers of the ionosphere was basic SOP, knowledge which this global experiment seeks to extend.

        Anyone wanting to know what communication devices they will have in future should follow what the HAMs are up to.

    • There have been lots of total eclipses. Ive seen two so far, one in Austria and one in Australia, just this century, and known of several others.

      The US is behaving as though this is the ‘first eclipse’ for a hundred years, it’s quite funny to observe!

      Round my way in Oz, we’ve got 10 years of none, then 4 in the next decade. Fun times, I think I’ll try for all of em. It’s not to be missed, I can assure you!

      • It’s the first eclipse in nearly a 100 years that crossed the United States coast to coast—not the first. There have been others visible in very limited areas of the United States over the years. We know that it’s not the first. However, no one in the USA has to go to another country to view an eclipse—everyone has to come here and judging from the numbers of foreign visitors anticipated, you’re one of the few finding the whole thing “funny”. If one has unlimited resources to travel or lives in an area where these occur more often, I suppose it’s not exciting. As I mentioned above, MONEY has a lot to do with this. My guess is people don’t flock to Australia and spend big bucks when you have one. Your comment seems to indicate this is the case.

  3. Why are they all so focused on a blank webpage on the picture??? Other than that, it’s an interesting story :)

  4. I talked to my mother while I was in Vietnam once using a ham radio. Ham radio operators had set up a free means for troops to call home. No internet or cell phones back then. Had to say “over”. :)

    • It was interesting the way the Ham radio operators set up the free calls home for U.S. troops. What they did was set up a ham radio link between the operator in Vietnam and a ham operator in the local calling district of the troop that was calling home and the local ham operator would make a local call (free) to the person of interest and then they would somehow feed this local call through the radio back to Vietnam.

      This allowed the call to be a local, free call, rather than charged as a long distance call. I don’t remember what a long distance call to the U.S. cost back then but it was a lot higher than your average G.I. could afford.

      This arrangement was all setup in advance so the Ham operators put in a lot of effort to help out some people who missed their loved ones. You had to get in line and you couldn’t talk but just a few minutes but it was well worth it and much appreciated. And you had to say “over” when your side of the conversation was over to let other party know it was their turn to reply back to you.

  5. Neat set of observational experiments planned, good for them. When my father was alive, we used to goof around with ionosphere radio bounce in November in Wisconsin during the deer hunting season. If it was very cold and dry, we could get some amazing range on simple low frequency AM. Pull in Denver. Pull in Atlanta.

    • agbjarn

      You really are an OM! Love that you got that call sign. I never managed to contact with TF3 though once I found a station in JTA when I was living in 3D6 (now 3DA0).

      Unbelievable that I am now visiting JTA occasionally, the other end of the Earth. HAM Radio unites!

  6. The world of English is, of course, far bigger than USA. Amateur (working for love of it) was easily changed in this case to ham, via the joking use of ‘amateur = ham. Well known in my youth c. 70ya.
    Originally, amateur was not derogatory, rather it was used by the gentry who needed no wages.against paid sportsmen eg cricket ‘professionals’. But that was well into the period of its use……

    • “The world of English is, of course, far bigger than USA.”

      I heard a report the other day that said 52 nations have English as their official language.

      • “Too bad the US is not one of them”

        Yeah, I hadn’t thought of that. :)

        Sometimes when talking to a computer on the telephone about something, the computer voice will say “For English, press 1”. I never press 1. I just sit there and wait a few seconds and then the computer voice proceeds as though I had pressed 1. It’s my little act of rebellion. At least the default is English if one does not reply.

        It’s about time the U.S. made English the official language. I think the Trump administration has removed some spanish-language webpages from government websites. That’s a good start. If you want to live in the U.S. then speak English. When Lowe’s takes down their dual english/spanish-language store signs, then I’ll say we are making progress.

      • Have you noticed the number of technology related toys that have instructions for use in English, Spanish, French, etc. and then the device only uses English in the songs, speaking, alphabet, etc?

  7. Even if you don’t officially join this project, any interested person can carry out an ‘ad hoc’ experiment to watch the ionosphere varying through the eclipse. I’ve done it (different eclipses) on LF maritime beacons (about 20 – 50kHz), MW radio (0.5 – 1.5MHz) and shortwave (3 – 30MHz). All worked well.

    Find a station whose signal is normally reliable during the day, ideally one which is the other side of the eclise path for maximum effect. You will (obviously) need a radio with a signal strength meter! Tune in ahead of the eclipse and establish its normal signal strength, and either read the signal strength meter at regular intervals through the ecliose or, better, hang a chart recorder onto it to record for you automatically.

    What you should see is that the signal drops from its daytime level,smoothly as the eclipse knocks out more and more of the path, reaching a minimum of approximately its night-time level as the eclipse reaches maximum. Then, as the eclipse passes, signals come smoothly back up until they are again at normal daytime levels. It’s not a subtle effect!

    If you’re lucky enough to live (or at least be) on the eclipse path, you can of course monitor all sorts of parameters – temperature, light intensity, bird noise, anything. I find the feeling you get afterwards is a bit like Feynman’s example of how more knowledge intensifies your appreciation of a flower: OK, everybody can enjoy the weirdness of ‘darkness at noon’, but the more you know the better it gets.

    You lucky lot. We in Britain don’t get this one. :-(

    Steve (licenced as G4ANA since 1971)

  8. I think radio operators knew all about this phenomenon in….oh…the late 1920s?
    But it’s always nice for later generations to re visit and re discover prior knowledge.

  9. Found this post from a link and wanted to suggest what you might want to do besides the visual. I sent this note to both radioaficionados and other friends-

    Below are diagrams by ham radio friend James Hollander, W5EST, of the experiments I will be involved in. I think I’m in the 90% eclipse area here in Inman, SC. The 630M band, where I have an FCC Experimental license WH2XZO, is below the broadcast band which starts at 540 kHz. I will be transmitting and receiving (alternating 2 minute periods) at 475 kHz using WSJT software designed by Nobel Prize winner in Physics Joe Taylor for amateur radio beaconing and experimentation.

    The software is used by many thousands of receive and transmit stations and connects to maps showing in real time every internet connected station and the stations both received and hearing each transmitting station. You can see the map here.
    The bands I’m mentioning in this note are MF for 630 meters and 40 M. You can select them and other bands to see the WSPR beacons being heard by other stations. It’s all on the map.

    Anyone can listen for the effect of the eclipse on medium wave radio propagation by listening on a good AM radio (the radio in your car, for instance) for stations you normally only hear at night. You may hear several minutes of .nighttime-like enhancement (skip). Stations you might want to listen for, if you have no daytime local station on that frequency, are WSM Nashville on 650, WLW Cincinnati on 700, WSB Atlanta on 750, WHAS Louisville on 820, KOA Denver on 850, WHO Des Moines on 1040, KFAB Omaha on 1110, KMOX St. Louis on 1120, KSL Salt Lake City on 1160, KEX Portland OR on 1190, 1510 WLAC Nashville on 1510, WCKY Cincinnati on 1530. KXEL Waterloo on 1540. These former “clear channel stations” now have low power daytime and even night time stations sharing the frequency, so check out the frequencies ahead of time to see which ones are clear daytime in your area.

    Where the sun is blocked there will be less D layer absorption. The D layer absorption prevents “skip” during the day. This may allow hearing these broadcast stations where the path from your location crosses the eclipse area with E-layer refraction taking place.

    In addition to 630M and at the same time, I’ll be transmitting and receiving using my ham license, K4LY, in the short wave 40 meter band around 7038 kHz-
    Enjoy the eclipse and be safe!

  10. Will he have a corresponding receiver which also will be in the circle of totality? I would expect that would be the ‘location’ of greatest effect

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