September 1999

No 167

UK University supplies equipment for international network

The Japanese are known throughout the world for their technical expertise. So the Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Leicester, UK, took it as a compliment when the Communications Research Laboratory from Japan asked them for a scientific radar system for a site in Alaska.

The new radar forms part of SuperDARN, a range of systems to the south and west of the magnetic North Pole and surrounding the magnetic South Pole, the best sites to monitor the energy entering the Earth's atmosphere. Their purpose is to measure the interaction between the solar wind and the Earth's ionosphere.

Dr Mark Lester, a member of the Radio and Space Plasmas Physics Research Group in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, explained the benefits the radar systems bring. "We are about to enter a period of increasing solar activity - activity emanating from the sun which affects the space surrounding Earth. This increase in activity, known as solar maximum, occurs every eleven years and can disrupt equipment mounted in space as well as ground-based systems. Since the last solar maximum more and more technology has come to rely on spacecraft and performance can be disrupted or even lost as a result of this solar activity.

"For instance, power lines and oil drilling, as well as navigational and communications satellites might be affected. This could cause major power cuts, as it did in Quebec in March 1989. Satellites may be lost which could affect a range of man's activities from scientific research to the transmission of television across the world.

"These radars behave rather like a weather radar, and indicate what is happening in the ionosphere so that precautions can be taken to safeguard equipment. In the future we may even be able to predict the space weather conditions in advance."

The new radar system is the third built by the University as part of SuperDARN. Two CUTLASS (Co-operative UK Twin Located Auroral Sounding System) sites are already in operation in Finland and Iceland. Dr Chris Thomas, also of the Radio and Space Plasmas Physics Research Group, feels that it was this track record that attracted the Japanese Communications Research Laboratory to Leicester. "Our particular radars are very reliable and suitable for operation in harsh environments. I believe they came to us because of our expertise here. The fact that we built the systems in Finland and Iceland and can operate them remotely from Leicester was clearly the most important aspect in their choice. The ability to design, fabricate, test and deploy systems like these is rare these days. We are probably the only UK University research group capable of this type of work."

All the equipment has been constructed in the University workshop, with the exception of the synthesisers and computers. Once it is transported to Alaska, the sixteen transmitters will each be linked with antennae there, using computer control systems to send out pulses that are reflected from irregularities in the ionosphere. The Alaska site will be unmanned, and information can be analysed almost instantaneously, in "real time" back in Leicester and Japan.

The system of radars round the North and South Poles represents a collaboration between many nations, including Sweden, Finland, France, the USA, Canada, Japan, South Africa, Austria and Italy. "It brings together many people from different countries, all operating their own instruments to a similar design and distributing the information to each other," Dr Lester said. "It is an excellent example of international scientific co-operation,"

Note for editors: The radar equipment will remain at the University of Leicester until 30 September 1999. For further information or to arrange a photo opportunity please contact Dr Mark Lester, telephone +44 (0)116 252 3580, facsimile +44 (0)116 252 2770, email mle@le.ac.uk, Supplementary information is available on the website http://www.ion.le.ac.uk

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Last updated: 23 September 1999 12:03
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