Montana State University

MSU to host national competition related to NASA satellite mission

May 7, 2012 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

MSU is one of the partners in NASA's IRIS satellite mission to study the transfer of energy through the sun's atmosphere. In conjunction with the mission, the Montana Space Grant Consortium will hold the National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition from May 16 to 18.   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN - College students from Maryland to California will gather May 16 to 18 at Montana State University for a national competition related to an upcoming NASA satellite mission.

Weather permitting, nine teams will climb onto the roof of AJM Johnson Hall with optical instruments they designed and built to answer questions about the sun and other scientific topics, said Randy Larimer, deputy director of the Montana Space Grant Consortium and director of the National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition. In case of bad weather, the students will work inside the building.

Students may use their spectrographs to look at the sun and choose solar features they want to examine, Larimer said. They could otherwise use the sun as a light source for any scientific question that interests them. In Montana alone, scientists are using spectroscopy to learn about meth houses, pine tree health, and water vapor in the Earth's atmosphere.

Each member of the four winning teams will receive a $3,000 scholarship from NASA, Larimer said. They will also have the opportunity to watch NASA's Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) satellite launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The launch is scheduled for December.

MSU solar physicist Charles Kankelborg -- who leads MSU's efforts on IRIS -- said spectrographs gather incoming light and separate out the wavelengths. Prisms are a simple form of spectrograph that breaks apart visible light, producing rainbows on walls and other surfaces. Other types of spectrographs - such as IRIS - break apart ultraviolet light, which is invisible to humans.

The Montana Space Grant Consortium, based at MSU, was selected to organize and host the competition as a way to help fulfill NASA's requirement that the IRIS mission include education and public outreach, Larimer said. The competition, in fact, is the second of three national spectrograph competitions the consortium is holding at MSU. The first, held last year, was a pilot. The third will be held next year, with the possibility of 30 teams competing.

The National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition is meant especially for smaller colleges that may not have much activity in aerospace or optics, Larimer said. Since the competition has four categories, it gives more teams a chance to win, he added. Those categories are best science, best build, best design, and best presentations. The presentations will be three 10-minute talks covering design and build, outreach, and scientific results.

Thirteen teams started the competition this year, and nine teams will be in Bozeman for the 2012 competition. Montana teams this year will come from Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell, Montana Tech in Butte, MSU in Bozeman (three teams) and the University of Montana in Missoula. Out-of-state teams will come from Harding University at Searcy, Ark., Montgomery College in Rockville, Md., and San Diego State University in California.

Kankelborg, who is one of the judges for the competition, said IRIS consists of a telescope and spectrograph working together to help scientists figure out how energy is transferred through the sun's atmosphere. This knowledge will have many applications, he added. Ultraviolet radiation from the solar atmosphere is highly variable and drives important chemical processes in Earth's upper atmosphere. The chromosphere is a conduit for energy that accelerates the solar wind, a stream of charged particles from the sun that - during intense episodes - has the potential to severely damage satellites, global power grids, GPS systems and disrupt airline travel. The U.S. government considers the understanding and predicting of solar winds and other "space weather" so important to the country's economic, transportation and energy infrastructures that it formed the Space Weather Prediction Center as part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. MSU, an internationally recognized leader in solar physics, contributes to the effort to understand and predict space weather.

The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics built the telescope that allows the IRIS spectrograph to observe the sun. MSU supplied the spectrograph optics and participated in its design. The spectrograph team is headed by Lockheed Martin.

Once it's launched, the telescope will face the sun at all times, orbit the Earth at least three years and gather images from the sun's chromosphere and transition region, Kankelborg said. The transition region is invisible from the ground. During a total eclipse of the sun, the chromosphere is seen as a thin red layer of atmosphere just above the bright yellow photosphere.

Kankelborg wrote in the the April issue of Physics Today that the IRIS mission will observe the chromosphere in ultraviolet light and the transition region in far-UV. He said the smallest observed elements of the chromosphere are spicules, which are thin shafts of plasma that can be found all over the face of the sun. They rise and fall at tens of kilometers per second, and come in two classes based on size and speed.

Other current or recent members of MSU's IRIS team are senior research engineer Larry Springer, who worked at Lockheed Martin before coming to MSU; professor Joseph Shaw, postdoctoral researchers Sarah Jaeggli and Nathan Pust, research engineers Keith Mashburn and Christy Dunn; and Stefan Eccles, a 2011 graduate in physics. Team members come from the Department of Physics and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

The National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition is free and open to the public. Events take place from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 16 to 18 with a special public outreach event from 3 to 5 p.m. Friday, May 18, in the atrium of the EPS Building.

For more information about the competition, go to

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or