Students Hunt For VLF Sites
In the tiny town of North Pole,
Alaska, the sun currently creeps into view for just three or four
hours a day. Temperatures typically crash in February to -30
degrees Fahrenheit or lower. And bears aren't uncommon in these
parts -- mother grizzlies have on occasion sheltered their cubs in
the woods near the local high school.
But none of that can chill the enthusiasm of North Pole High
School math teacher Dr. Curt Szuberla and his student team of
aspiring scientists and engineers, who braved the elements this
winter on NASA's behalf to scout locations for and build a
very-low-frequency radio receiver, or VLF.
The receiver will help NASA and students around the nation study
the eerie "music" of planet Earth -- radio waves emitted by
lightning strikes and other natural phenomena, which VLF receivers
deliver as a weirdly beautiful chorus.
VLF receiver systems are simple gadgets, little more than an
antenna and an audio amplifier, which translate radio waves --
inaudible to humans -- into acoustic oscillations we can hear. In
1990, space scientist Bill Taylor of NASA's Goddard Space Center in
Greenbelt, MD, and Bill Pine, an enterprising science teacher at
Chaffey High School in Ontario, CA, founded the Interactive NASA
Space Physics Ionosphere Radio Experiments program, or INSPIRE,
which uses these receivers to bring the excitement of studying
very-low-frequency radio waves into the classroom.
INSPIRE, a non-profit education program managed at the Goddard
Center, encourages students to build and activate VLF receiver
systems and develop their own research projects. To date, more than
1,500 receivers have been built at elementary schools and high
schools across North America. But none as far north as North Pole,
Enter Szuberla, who holds a doctorate in physics, and his
quartet of field researchers, 16-year-olds Kit Dawson and Matt
Welch and 17-year-olds Matt Keller and Nicolas Leland -- all
juniors studying calculus and advanced computer programming.
Szuberla, in consultation with NASA researchers Jim Spann, Mitzi
Adams and Dennis Gallagher of the Marshall Space Flight Center in
Huntsville, Ala., recognized a unique opportunity to use the
INSPIRE concept in a new way --bringing the hunt for ghostly Earth
music to a whole new generation of students.
Earth's protective magnetic field is familiar to most people,
but perhaps less well known is the way it expands around the
planet's equator and converges at the North and South Poles. "Space
weather" -- activity on the Sun such as solar flares and coronal
mass ejections, which can change the interplanetary magnetic field
and cause dazzling auroral light displays and other disturbances in
Earth's own magnetic field -- make the polar regions more favorable
sites for VLF systems to pick up natural Earth sounds.
At the "top" of the world, Szuberla's team also will record the
low-frequency music of another natural phenomenon -- the aurora
Borealis --and stream it via the Internet to the entire INSPIRE
community, and to classrooms and Web users worldwide.
For Szuberla's students, that meant finding an ideal site for
the VLF system and building the equipment. Wary of uncertain local
terrain that could block or muffle radio waves -- and equally wary
of bears -- the team settled on the school roof. To construct the
VLF system itself, they traveled to the University of Alaska in
nearby Fairbanks to learn how to solder transistors and other
miniature components to build the receiver.
That hands-on experience was eye-opening. "I like the fact that
when you're done, you're holding something that does a job it
couldn't do before," Leland said.
"Assembling the receiver really helped me understand some of the
work in our classes," Keller said. "It definitely reinforced my
interest in working with computers."
Szuberla enjoys their enthusiasm. "Right now, they're primarily
interested in what goes into the box," he said. "In the spring,
they'll learn what comes out of it."
It may not take that long to pique their interest. During their
initial equipment tests, Szuberla's students quickly became
fascinated by the bursts of "sferics," "tweeks" and "whistlers" --
nicknames for lightning-spawned radio waves translated by the VLF
system into audible scratches, chirps and squeals. The team will
test their apparatus during the spring term, sending audio to Spann
and his colleagues at the Marshall Center for verification of a
In the fall of 2005, the Marshall
Center's Space Science branch at the National Space Science and
Technology Center in Huntsville will initiate a Web-based
"Earthsounds Scavenger Hunt" program. The three-year education
initiative, based on INSPIRE and made possible by a grant in 2004
from NASA's Science Mission Directorate, will challenge students
nationwide to use VLFs to "hunt" for natural Earthsounds --
sparking their interest in science and space.
During the 2005-2006 school year, NASA and North Pole High
School will stream real-time audio via the Internet. Schools around
the country will be invited to join a pilot program to fine-tune
the project, but the site will be accessible for all interested
users. NASA will open the "Scavenger Hunt" program to high schools
nationwide in 2006.