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Solar studies at home and abroad

February 11, 2019

Particles emitted from the sun enter the Earth’s atmosphere and can be potentially hazardous.

UW-River Falls has a team of students and professors actively researching detectors of solar storms. UWRF senior Grace Zeit, who is only 18 years old, traveled to the South Pole to collect data from these detectors in Dec. 2018.

The detectors are called neutron monitors and have been around since the late 1960’s, with UWRF students and faculty getting involved around seven years ago. The monitor’s measure energized particles that result from solar storms.

Zeit said, “Big incoming particles from the sun are things we look at because they have been known to take out satellites, cause damage for certain astronauts in space, and even interrupt cell phone communication. It’s apart of everyday life.”

Zeit is currently working on leader fraction analysis. Zeit explained, “It is a lot of writing code, looking at that code, and what we would eventually want to do is interpret the graphs that we get from that code and look at different solar effects to see if and how we can see them.”

In the South Pole, Zeit was either working with the neutron monitor or out exploring different facilities.

“I think it’s about as close as being in an alien world as it gets. We have a lot of snow here, but it’s completely different down there, you look out and all you see is white,” Zeit continued. “There are no distinguishing features other than a few buildings that are down there. The sky is overcast a lot so then you have the white sky and the white ground. It’s also 24 hours of daylight.”

According to the Chair of the Physics department Surujhdeo Seunarine, there are currently three students working on the neutron monitor project and only two faculty members; himself and Professor James Madsen. Seunarine explains that the three students that are currently working on the neutron monitor at UWRF are “doing longer-term research projects that involve doing a physic analysis of the data. Grace is using a special data set to look at solar activity.”

UWRF students and faculty are not the only ones involved in the project. The University of Delaware and two institutions located in Thailand are also currently working on the neutron monitor. Students who choose to work on this neutron monitor are able to visit the South Pole or Thailand, like Zeit.

Seunarine said, “One or two students going to the South Pole in any given year for the past five or six years. We have also had about one or two students traveling to Thailand for the past three years to visit our research collaborators and to present at a physics conference.”

Students interested in getting involved in this project are encouraged to contact Seunarine or Professor James Madsen. No student is unable to join, even if they are new to campus. This collaboration allows students to acknowledge the solar activity, and work on data analysis to make sense of different solar effects.