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Solar study leads to Antarctic adventure

November 7, 2014

Life on Earth relies on the energy that we get from the sun, but the sun can also be destructive for our technology-based society. A team from UW-River Falls, UW-Waukesha and the University of Delaware is going to McMurdo Station on the coast of Antarctica to work on detectors used to study solar storms.

These occasional eruptions from the sun send bursts of energetic particles to the earth that can disrupt communication and, in extreme cases, damage electronics. These fortunately rare, but interesting, outbursts are being studied by the team with support from a five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant.

The Wisconsin team includes Sam Gardner, a third year student at Waukesha, and UWRiver Falls Physics Department Professor and Chair Jim Madsen. Madsen and Gardner will be working with Delaware Professor Paul Evenson. The goal of the five-year project is to better understand the mechanisms that produce the solar storms and to study whether the neutron monitors can be used as an early indicator of impending storms.

Gardner is working toward a degree in chemical engineering and plans to transfer to UW-Madison in the fall of 2015. He spent the summer at UWRF updating the computer program that runs the neutron monitors. A talk last year at Waukesha by Madsen sparked Gardner’s interest in physics.

Madsen has been involved in astrophysics research in Antarctica for more than 15 years. During this time, more than 60 students have done astrophysics research at UWRF, but only a select few, four students in total with one going twice, have made it to Antarctica. NSF funding will send four students to Mc- Murdo and four more students to the South Pole over the next five years.

For more information, contact Madsen at 715-425-3235 or email james.madsen@uwrf.edu.