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UW-River Falls student and professor work on Antarctic physics project

February 24, 2016

A UW-River Falls professor and physics student came back from Antarctica last month after being away nearly four weeks on a research project, studying the properties of the sun.

Jim Madsen, professor and chair of the physics department, has been deployed to the Antarctic stations four times before. This time, he brought along UWRF student Laura Moon and Northern Illinois University College of Engineering student Robert Zill. Over the course of the trip, the three of them traveled between two stations located on the coast, McMurdo and South Pole, Amundsen-Scott, of Antarctica, working with and familiarizing themselves with the research equipment located there.

It’s a unique opportunity for physics students like Moon and Zill. Mostly, what they are doing is equipment checks — the actual data is sent back from Antarctica as it’s collected — but the trip offers the chance for students to apply their knowledge in a real-world scenario. This season in particular, Moon said, they were preparing for a move that’s been planned for next year, and were simply trying to figure out how to shift things around.

At home, Moon worked last summer with the actual data, running FLUKA simulations (FLUktuierende KAskade), which involve programming and simulating particle interactions. She’s written a paper on her work, and has gone on to present it at a conference in Thailand.

The goal, Madsen said, is to give these students a skill set that will be useful in whatever field they decide to pursue. The physics department has seen a roughly 15 percent increase in students since 2010 according to the 2014-2015 enrollment report, and Madsen said he would like to see these students go into fields other than teaching. “We are not trying to reproduce a bunch of people like me,” he said. Plenty of students likely will indeed choose professions as teachers, but the hope is to see students going on to apply their knowledge in the work industry in ways that might better the world.

Thus far, this particular project has been largely academic. The aim, according to Madsen, is to understand how the sun produces cosmic rays, high-energy particles that spew from the sun’s surface during solar storms. These particles cross the solar system and often interact with the earth’s atmosphere to produce neutrons. These “secondary particles,” as Madsen terms them, can be measured by the equipment stationed at McMurdo and Amundsen-Scott. From that data, Madsen, Moon and others involved in the project hope to understand exactly how the sun produces these high-energy particles.

The reason this knowledge is such a priority is because solar storms have the potential to knock out electronic devices and satellites. In an age where many people are dependent on electronics, this could become a significant disruption to modern life and the hope is to use the information from these experiments in creating an early-warning system for the storms. In order for technological innovators to do their job, however, they need to understand how solar storms function.

“Mostly, what we care about is the science,” Madsen said. Other people apply the information gathered in the neutron-counting experiment, but Madsen and the other researchers involved are mainly aiming to understand how the sun and these storms of high-energy particles work.

The project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, has been running since 1961 and is the longest continually-running experiment in Antarctica. Thus far, it has only been funded for an additional two years, but Madsen expects that it will continue indefinitely since there’s considerable scientific value in having an uninterrupted stream of data like this.

Madsen will be returning next season, sometime between November and February, and plans to bring along more students to help in relocating detectors around the stations.