Case Amateur Radio Club gains national attention for eclipse research

It’s not every day that a Case Western Reserve University student organization gets interviewed for News 5 Cleveland or Smithsonian Magazine. But for the Case Amateur Radio Club, which goes by the call sign of W8EDU, national press coverage was only a part of their lead up to the eclipse.

In their day-to-day operations, W8EDU is a place for undergraduate students to engage with amateur radio, commonly referred to as ham radio, to send and receive messages for a non-commercial purpose. Tucked in a shack on the roof of Glennan Building, W8EDU members are taking ham radio to another level, using its capabilities to make scientific discoveries.

Benjamin Nelson, a fourth-year electrical engineering major and W8EDU’s historian, said, “It was my introduction to amateur radio and a lot of electronics initially in my undergraduate. And from there, it kind of became this whole social thing, nice to hang out with people on Thursday nights, do cool radio physics and electronic stuff. And then over time, it kind of grew.”

One of his favorite memories was a time he was using a digital interface, known as FT8, to communicate with individuals outside of North America. He said, “We ping[ed] someone in South America and Europe at the same time and it was like, oh my gosh, we’re sending signals and communicating with them.”

Recently, the organization made campus headlines for their game of radio chess against The Ohio State University during the homecoming festivities at the start of the academic year, which was highlighted by the American Radio Relay League and other campus newspapers.

Part of the way they do this is by holding licensing exams on campus where community members can be authorized by the Federal Communications Commission to operate amateur radio in the United States.

Nelson mentioned how much the amateur radio club expanded in terms of active members and the number of licensed radio operators at CWRU.

“The eclipse is this magical thing for amateur radio because it completely messes with the ionosphere,” Nelson said regarding why the eclipse is such a big deal for amateur radio operators in the United States. He later explained that the ionosphere, which is a layer of the atmosphere, is vital for amateur radio as it is “the reason why radio waves when we send them off don’t just fly off into space, they can bounce back and reflect.”

The ionosphere is the space where the atmosphere meets space, and it is where all of Earth’s charged particles are located. It is known that ultraviolet radiation from the Sun induces changes to the ionosphere, and W8EDU members, in collaboration with other North American amateur stations, wanted to understand the recombination time of the ionosphere during the rapid fluctuation of the eclipse.

“[The Eclipse] provides a really interesting environment for us to examine the ionosphere by sending signals, transmitting, receiving and seeing how the radio waves we send out behave differently under normal circumstances,” Nelson said.

The ionosphere is important for radio operators because sudden changes to the ionosphere are thought to affect communication systems. To test this theory, W8EDU and other local stations monitored the reception of the Canadian time standard station CHU before, during and after the eclipse. “It’s a standard signal, it’s always the same, you know what it’s going to be exactly, so you’re able to see the deviations as they happen in real time,” Nelson said regarding why they used this method of data collection.

This research project has since caught media attention from outlets such as The Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine and The Wall Street Journal. This media attention shows that this is no longer just an effort from a club at CWRU, but it has become a global initiative, involving operators from the United States, Mexico and Canada. Nelson said, “What we’re doing is we’ve sent some receiving kits and given instructions out to a whole network of amateur radio operators and citizen scientists who want to help out.” A week prior to the eclipse, W8EDU had signed up 50 of these operators.

Nelson and his colleagues mentioned that this is uncharted territory for amateur radio operators: “I think people may have done some sort of experiments to try and estimate [the effect of the eclipse on the ionosphere].”

For Nelson and rest of W8EDU, the eclipse provided the ultimate opportunity for “people with [a] really niche interest in amateur radio to come together on this whole big project … It’s been really neat seeing not just outreach but how much support we’ve gotten from other students which has been really cool.”

Tyler Zupfer, a second-year polymer science engineering student, stated how they “think it’s super cool that radio gets a chance to do research in such a once-in-a-blue-moon event.”

During the eclipse, many members were excited by the potential application of radio. As such, select W8EDU members got to experience the eclipse from the roof of Glennan Building. Staff from the university’s marketing department were also present on the roof, broadcasting a livestream of the view.

Nelson said that the eclipse experiment would be “pretty automated,” which allowed members to watch the eclipse themselves.

Nelson noted that right after the eclipse came, it felt “surreal,” and many shared this sentiment. Just after totality had passed, the entire roof erupted in a sense of feverish excitement, with individuals shouting, “this must be fake” and “space is so cool.”

For many individuals, including fourth-year electrical engineering student and President of W8EDU Adam Goodman, part of the fun was seeing their research projects and questions come to life. He noted that a highlight for him was “to see the data come in real time and celebrate that.”

“To view it from the roof with my friends, the alumni, the faculty and so many guests made it a special experience for us,” Goodman said about the community he and other amateur radio operators at CWRU have built up.

Eclipse day for W8EDU was about more than just running experiments. It was also an opportunity to engage in contesting, where each station attempted to contact as many other stations during a set period of time—in this case, the hours preceding, during and after the eclipse.

Nelson explained that this is called a “QSO party which [is held] around the eclipse.” He said,  “This isn’t led by W8EDU, this is a more general amateur radio thing. It’s kind of a big contest where everyone’s going to be trying to make a bunch of contacts here and there.”

For those in W8EDU, this became known as the “Tinktenna” Crew after the installation of a large radio antenna on the balcony of Tinkham Veale University Center. Starting in the morning and proceeding once the eclipse passed, operators attempted to make as many contacts as possible by exchanging basic name and geophysical information with those on the other side of the receiver.

Aaron Bilow, a first-year electrical engineering student, was one of the individuals responsible for making contact with the other mature radio operators. At the start of the eclipse, he said, “We’ve made contacts so far in Florida and Washington State, and we are just doing a great job of connecting the community as a whole in terms of eclipse research and just this hobby that we all love.”

The crew on the “Tinktenna” reported getting in contact with 19 other operators, such as ones from Puerto Rico.

While those operating the radio were either qualified operators, many students with no prior experience came to witness the antennas. “It’s very cool to be part of this historic citizen science project,” second-year biology student Matthew Haimowitz, who previously had minimal involvement with the amateur radio, said. “And I’m sure even though I’m not an engineering major, I’m sure this will not be my last interaction with the radio club.”

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