Texas Tech University

Looking Beyond the Horizon

Doug Hensley

April 5, 2023

Station at Sunset

A Texas Tech professor receives a grant to help address a challenge for the U.S. Air Force.

Texas Tech's Thomas Maccarone has received a grant from the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research to study possible impacts of one layer of the earth's ionosphere upon radio communications.

Thomas Maccarone

Maccarone, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, said the project will have short- and long-term benefits and implications. The one-year grant is for just more than $500,000.

“We will use a set of dipole radio antennas to study what is called the sporadic E-layer of the ionosphere,” he said. “That is the short-term component the Air Force is funding. There are different layers of the ionosphere, and each has code letters. Sometimes the E-layer gets dense enough that it reflects FM radio transmissions.”

The ionosphere is one of the layers of the earth's atmosphere, almost 40 miles above the earth's surface. It is subdivided into three layers, each with a letter designation. Radio signals bouncing off the ionosphere allow them to reach around the world.

Over the long term, the project also will allow Texas Tech researchers to use the equipment for radio astronomy. There may also be application for Texas Tech geoscientists conducting lightning research.

The first priority, though, is to get a Texas site up and running. Upon completion, there will be another facility in place to help map places in the ionosphere where the disruptions are occurring.

“There are other stations for the Long Wavelength array, of which this will be a part, in New Mexico, and the idea is to have another one in Texas,” Maccarone said. “If you only have one site, you won't have good localization of where the layer is getting dense enough to reflect radio waves. My role is to help collect the data and give it to people at the Air Force Research Lab.”

“We are very excited about Texas Tech joining the LWA Swarm,” said Greg Taylor, who oversees the LWA project at the University of New Mexico. “The addition of an LWA station in Texas will significantly expand the region we can study. Furthermore, we will be able to combine the LWA Swarm stations to make much higher resolution images of the sky than our individual station.”

The first step is to purchase the dipole antennas and install them at a facility near Crowell, Texas, which is approximately 160 miles east of Lubbock, which will represent the first expansion of the Long Wavelength Array based in New Mexico.

Maccarone said the plan is to order antennas and electronics to support the project, after which the antennas will be placed and then computers powered up to collect data. Also, the hope is to have undergraduate students involved in the project to give them hands-on experience in both ionospheric physics and radio astronomy.

The project is meaningful on several levels, the most important of which is obtaining data that will provide data that will help the military communicate more efficiently.

“If we have people in fighter jets, and they can't communicate with GPS satellites, it's extremely dangerous,” Maccarone said. “From that point of view, there is a military need to understand how the ionospheric physics work.

He said projects like this where university resources and researchers can partner with the military to address specific needs can benefit both entities.

“Part of the appeal for me is it's good to do things that help our country out,” he said, “and part of the appeal is we will get to use this equipment to do radio astronomy as well.”