The INSPIRE Project: Art & Science
The editor looks at a prominent US scientific funding programme, which encourages young scientists to explore Very Low Frequency
The editor looks at a prominent US scientific funding programme, which encourages young scientists to explore Very Low Frequency (VLF) natural radio emissions through practical observations, placements and scientific research.
The INSPIRE Project is a not-for-profit educational initiative, aiming primarily at US high school students. INSPIRE stands for Interactive NASA Space Physics Ionosphere and Radio Experiments.
This initiative grew out of an experiment from a Space Shuttle in orbit. VLF signals were transmitted to the surface, in order to gain insights into the physics of the ionosphere and atmosphere.
Like many UK-based radio hobbyists, I first encountered this programme a few years ago, when I was looking, together with some hobby-friends, into 'natural' radio like Whistlers, Tweeks and Schuman Resonances in the ELF and VLF wave bands. The INSPIRE project was founded in 1989 by Dr Bill Taylor.
The programme’s ethos may, perhaps, best be encapsulated in this statement: “The study of science is serious. However, it should also be fun, intriguing, creative, and an insightful exploration of the world around us. The INSPIRE Project, Inc. continues to keep these things in mind as it promotes the importance of education in the physical sciences and technology, through broad and various project opportunities.”
Most interestingly for UK hobbyists, the INSPIRE project offers the VLF-3 VLF radio receiver (Fig. 1) in kit form, for US$120. Since 1989, such receiver kits have been provided to over 3,000 students and groups, within the USA and internationally, to make field observations of VLF signals.
The VLF-3 receiver has been designed to receive radio waves in the 0 -10kHz frequency range. These are only audible to the human ear when converted into sound waves by speakers or headphones. The VLF-3 is now used in laboratories, schools and radio shacks across the USA and internationally (Fig. 1).
Fig. 2 shows two curves for the INSPIRE receiver’s measured frequency response, one with the high pass filter switched off and one with it switched on. Dr Dennis L. Gallagher, of the Heliophysics and Planetary Science Branch ST13 at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, commented on the graph as follows: “You can see that 0-10kHz is not quite right for this receiver. Perhaps 0.1-15kHz would be somewhat more accurate, even though not precise. One would have to determine the noise floor for the receiving location, as a function of things like nearby power lines and power supply noise, before knowing the frequency range that could be observed.”
I am interested in how (natural) sounds and (man-made) signals in the ELF-VLF band can give us clues about propagation forecasting, earthquakes, the activities of the Sun, the state of the atmosphere and ionosphere and much besides. Therefore, I ordered one of the receivers a while back, and I have used it ever since, to listen to the soothing sounds of our planet or record (indirectly, through VLF) Sudden Ionospheric Disturbances (SIDs).
Last year saw a significant solar eclipse unfold across the US (on 21st August 2017) and this provided the impetus for a raft of INSPIRE-connected initiatives, observations and reports, which all provided information about VLF radio waves.
Encouragingly, the Humanities too got a foot in the door, by means of the NASA Eclipse Art Projects, the most interesting of which, arguably, was the engaging Predict-the-Corona Art Project. It is encouraging to see that the ‘STEM-hegemony’, unlike some solar eclipses, is not total.
INSPIRE is about more than radio science though, and it paves the way for many budding amateur scientists, school students and young researchers to obtain College and University Scholarships with NASA and other prestigious bodies and institutions. The awards cover the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).
There are also NASA Goddard Summer Internships and Space Academy for Educators Scholarships available for suitable candidates. Sadly, the funding appears, currently, only to be available for US nationals, but students at UK universities should contact any US partner institutions they are working with.
The proprietary Inspire Journal provides access to publications and resources and brings together a network of scientists, students and citizen-scientists. It reports on outreach initiatives, conferences and projects in this exciting area, thus combining the key areas of radio science, amateur radio astronomy and geophysics.
Monitoring low-frequency emissions can help us to understand phenomena such as earthquakes, solar flares and electric discharges in our atmosphere.
The INSPIRE Project, Inc.; 107 S West Street; PMB #425; Alexandria, VA 22314-2824, USA
Ms Eva Kloostra
Dr Dennis L Gallagher
Adams, M. et al (2018) INSPIRE 2017 Solar Eclipse VLF Field Experiment: INSPIRE Journal, Vol. 24 Fall 2017/ Spring 2018): 19-28
Bennett, R. (2000) The INSPIRE VLF-3 Receiver: Theory of Operation:
Cataldi, G. and D. (2013) Reception of Natural Radio Emissions in the ELF Band (INSPIRE Journal, Vol. 20/ 2013: 12-16)
Marshal, J.A. et al (2007): INSPIRE – A VLF Radio Project for High School Students (The Physics Teacher 45, 42)
This article was featured in the October 2018 issue of Radio User