While we watched the eclipse, they studied the sky


During the April 8 total solar eclipse, associate physics professor Fabiano Rodrigues led a team of student researchers in probing the ionosphere, collecting data on how parts of the sky change during an eclipse and affect satellite transmissions. 

Rodrigues has been a long time expert in the ionosphere, the electrified upper region of the atmosphere, since his arrival to campus in 2012, and the eclipse provided a unique opportunity to study the behavior and change of total electrons in the ionosphere during the phenomenon. This research could potentially improve the precision of radio waves and GPS systems, which rely on the ionosphere for signal transmission.  

“There are many ways that the ionosphere can affect signals used for communication, navigation or remote sensing,” Rodrigues said. “For instance, precise GPS position calculation requires that ionospheric delays be accounted for. Additionally, small scale ionospheric perturbations also cause diffraction and fluctuations in the phase or amplitude of GPS signals, which are detrimental to the receiver’s ability to track these signals.”  

Nearly two years ago, Rodrigues’ team was working on low-cost ionospheric sensors in their lab, made to collect radio signals from the ionosphere. Dubbed ScintPi sensors, student researchers instead found an unexpected use for them when the ScintPi sensors picked up a solar radio burst. From there, the sensors became a prime tool for their investigation measuring the annular eclipse in 2023, where there was a drastic drop in electrons in the ionosphere.  

“Careful analyses of the signals can provide us with information about the signal delay caused by the ionosphere, which is proportional to the ionospheric ionization or total electron content,” Rodrigues said. “We used modified receivers with dedicated signal acquisition systems and special signal analyses to derive how total electron content near Dallas varied with time and how much the total eclipse impacted it.” 

During the campus event for the solar eclipse, Rodrigues and his family were joined by members of the research team including electrical engineering graduate student Josemaria Sócola, physics graduate student Alexander Massoud and physics graduate student Isaac Wright. They provided live results of the ScintPi sensors at the science pavilion, and stood by to answer questions while collecting data.   

“We had a lot of fun enjoying the eclipse with other UTD faculty members, staff and students,” Rodrigues said. “[We] quantified how the ionosphere behaved during the eclipse. The temporal variation of total electron count before, during and after the eclipse. More specific results will come after we can spend some time processing and interpreting the measurements.” 


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