Montana State University

MSU to host third national competition related to NASA solar mission

May 10, 2013 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

MSU is one of the partners in NASA’s IRIS mission to study the transfer of energy through the sun’s atmosphere. In conjunction with the mission, currently set to launch June 26, the Montana Space Grant Consortium will hold the 2013 National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition.One of the MSU teams in last year's National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition analyzes data from a spectrograph of the sun. Pictured from left are Colin Young, Chris Zimny, Drew Moen, Ethan Keeler, and reflected in the mirror, Courtney Peck. Keeler, Zimny and Moen are now among the judges for this year's competition.  (2012 MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).

MSU is one of the partners in NASA’s IRIS mission to study the transfer of energy through the sun’s atmosphere. In conjunction with the mission, currently set to launch June 26, the Montana Space Grant Consortium will hold the 2013 National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition.   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571

BOZEMAN – Students from across the United States will gather at Montana State University May 15 to 17 for a national competition related to a NASA solar mission.

The National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition will be held on the roof of AJM Johnson Hall and inside the Strand Union Building, said Randy Larimer, deputy director of the Montana Space Grant Consortium (MSGC) and director of the competition.

Seventeen teams from Arkansas, California, Idaho, Indiana, Montana, South Carolina, New York and Washington built and designed optical instruments, called spectrographs, that they will use to collect data from the sun. Then they will use that information to answer a variety of scientific questions. The questions will focus on the sun or other topics, such as water quality in lakes near Kalispell and the scattering of sunlight through smoke.

The students will compete in four categories: best science observation, best build, best design and best presentation of results. Each member of the four winning teams will receive a $3,000 scholarship and the opportunity to watch a launch at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Six teams will win a solar telescope.

“The whole competition is more about the creative learning process rather than the finished spectrometer,” Larimer said. “While we hope that the teams get good results, every team has a unique success story, even teams without a working spectrograph. Seven of the 24 originally registered teams did not make it this far. I’m telling every team, ‘You have a unique success story, and we want to hear all about it.’”

This will be the third time in three years that the MSGC has organized and hosted the National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition, a fact that has benefited MSU students and the university alike, Larimer said.

Dave Riesland from Miles City, for example, is one of 10 (out of more than 2,000 applicants) to land an internship at the NASA Aeronautics Academy at the Glenn Research Center in Ohio. Ethan Keeler of Butte received a prestigious 2013 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. Both are MSU electrical engineering majors who participated in last year’s National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition. They are among six graduate and undergraduate students who will help judge this year’s competition.

The competition also provides networking opportunities for participants. It gives MSU national exposure and shows visiting students some of the hands-on experiences that are available at MSU, Larimer said. When students aren’t competing, they will be able to tour MSU laboratories and interact with local people working for international technology companies and professional groups such as Newport/Richardson Gratings, Newport/ILX Lightwave, 406 Aerospace, NWB Sensors, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), and OpTec. They may watch MSU students communicate with the Hiscock Radiation Belt Explorer (HRBE), a student-built satellite that was launched in 2011 and is still orbiting the Earth.

“I think MSU is starting to be recognized as a place for students to get valuable hands-on experience as undergraduates,” Larimer said.

MSU will have four teams in this year’s competition. Other Montana teams will represent the University of Montana, Miles Community College and Flathead Valley Community College. Out-of-state teams will represent Harding University in Searcy, Ark., Bakersfield College in California, San Diego State University, the University of Southern Indiana, Brigham Young University in Rexburg, Idaho, the College of Charleston in South Carolina, Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., and Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Wash.

The National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition is free and open to the public. The weather-dependent schedule calls for students to collect solar information from the roof of AJM Hall between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, May 15 and 16.  Simultaneously, students will give 10-minute talks in the Procrastinator Theater in the Strand Union Building. The final results will be presented in the Procrastinator Theater starting at 8 a.m. on Friday, May 17.

An open house and free family event will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, May 16, in SUB Ballrooms B, C and D. Larimer said this will be a perfect time for visitors to see the accomplishments of each team. In addition, MSU solar physicist Charles Kankelborg will speak about NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) mission at 6 p.m.

“The entire community will enjoy this unique opportunity,” Larimer said. “The students have worked really hard, and they are excited about what they have done.”

The National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition helps fulfill the education and public outreach component of IRIS, which is currently scheduled to launch June 26 from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, Larimer said.

MSU was selected to host the competition because MSU faculty members played an important role in IRIS, Larimer said. The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics built the telescope that allows the IRIS spectrograph to observe the sun. An MSU team headed by Kankelborg supplied the spectrograph optics and participated in its design. The spectrograph team is headed by Lockheed Martin.

IRIS consists of a telescope and spectrograph working together to help scientists figure out how energy is transferred through the sun’s atmosphere, Kankelborg said. 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. The transition region is invisible from the ground. During a total eclipse of the sun, the chromosphere looks like a thin red layer of atmosphere just above the bright yellow photosphere.

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.

For more information on the National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition, go to 

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or

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