Courtesy of Cornell University

October 26, 2022

Jicamarca Radio Observatory Receives Out-of-This World $12 Million Grant

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Jicamarca Radio Observatory, a scientific facility for studying the equatorial ionosphere located in Lima, Peru, recently received over $12 million in grants to help expand. Dating back to the 1960s, the facility is run by the Geophysics Institute of Peru and aided by Cornell and the U.S. National Science Foundation. 

The observatory’s claim to fame is its main antenna, which iscomposed of over 18,000 dipole antennas and covers over 90,000 square meters of the desert. It is the largest incoherent scatter radar in the world, working to send radio signals towards space and gather information.

Professor David Hysell, earth and atmospheric sciences, has been working with the observatory since the 1990s when he was a grad student at Cornell. 

“I did my thesis work at this observatory,” Hysell said. “Now I’m the principal investigator for the National Science Foundation award that is mainly responsible for funding it.”

Hysell works with the observatory’s director, Danny Scipion, to steer technological development, prioritize the expansion of certain systems and articulate requests for changes in proposals to the National Science Foundation. 

Because the facility has been open for over 60 years, Hysell said that drastic modernization has occurred and almost none of the equipment is leftover from the original days.

“Really everything has changed — the way signals are acquired, generated, processed and everything like that,” Hysell said. “A lot of equipment has come and gone abd the only thing that’s really still original is the antenna.”

Despite the changes,the facility’s mission has stayed the same: collect data to add to their already substantial database on space physics and space weather. 

Hysell is currently working with a team of scientists to see if they can gather echos from the sun. Hysell explains that as the sun ejects material into the solar wind, it does so in an irregular way, hitting the earth and creating weather in space. The team at Jicamarca hopes to observe this process, learning more about space and possibly making predictions to see what type of weather is headed towards Earth.

As of now, his team has yet to find any evidence, but is optimistic that the recent grant will allow the team to fund equipment upgrades — such as making the antennas steerable, replacing old equipment and buying technically better equipment —  that will make the observation a success. 

Also working with Jicamarca to advance upgrades is Fabiano Rodrigues, an associate professor of physics at the University of Texas, Dallas. Rodrigues recently lead a $2.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation, part of the overall $12 million grant.

Working together with a team, Rodrigues held weekly meetings to discuss what type of science questions they wanted to address. From there, they asked themselves what types of observations and experiments the community would benefit from the most. Together, they took all of those questions and wove them together into a document that they sent to the National Science Foundation. 

“We really want to serve different areas of research and make it available to the community so that the facility can continue to provide state of the art observations,” Rodrigues said.

In a 50-page proposal, Rodrigues advocated the building of two new receiving systems that would allow the observatory team to gather info beyond a single path, greatly increasing the team’s ability to research radio astronomy. The National Science Foundation then sent that proposal to several experts with different specialties to evaluate the construction of this multistatic radar system truly aligned with the community’s needs. 

The proposal was successfully passed, and Jicamarca received the $2.8 million grant, much to Rodrigues’ excitement.

“All of us are very excited to get this going because it’s the biggest expansion Jicamarca has all in all of their years,” Rodrigues said. “And this project is truly opening up the variety of experiments and studies that a student visiting Jicamarca can do because they will have a much bigger menu to choose from.”