Eclipse creates radio research opportunity

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All of North America will experience a solar eclipse when the sun, Earth and moon align Aug. 21, and a group of local researchers will be training an expert eye – and ear – from their angle in Kilgore.

Amateur ham radio enthusiasts from Longview and Tyler will gather with fellow aficionados here at the Texas Museum of Broadcasting & Communications, studying what effects the celestial phenomenon has on their craft. The community is welcome to join the party.

“They are coming here to see what happens to radio propagation when there’s a total eclipse,” according to Chuck Conrad, owner and executive director of the Texas Broadcasting Museum at 416 E. Main St. “This is a nationwide thing … All kinds of other natural phenomenon affect the propagation of radio waves. Maybe a total eclipse does. Maybe absolutely nothing.”

Conrad’s a ham radio operator as well, but he’s not an active practitioner.

“I haven’t plugged my ham radio equipment in in many years,” but the local communications equipment collector and radio station operator was happy to host the Longview/East Texas Amateur Radio Club’s tailgate party in May, drawing dozens of LETARC members and their comrades to the museum. “What they do doesn’t get enough credit. When it hits the fan around here … no cell, no Internet, no power ... their stuff works. They’re the last communications media.”

Ross Bennett of Kilgore Screen Printing is a ham radio operator and a fan of the still-new broadcast museum, which opened in Fall 2016. He’s got his calendar marked and he’s counting the days until the moon passes between the sun and the Earth later this month, casting a shadow that will sweep across the country and block (partially in Kilgore) the solar light.

Bennett and his colleagues from LETARC and the Tyler Amateur Radio Club are fine-tuning their equipment and putting the finishing touches on their Aug. 21 experiment.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” he said. At the same time, “It’s some serious scientific research. This is going to make a big difference.

According to Bennett, the local ham radio operators-turned-researchers will pass their data on to Virginia Tech, where a professor of electrical engineering is leading an experiment to study the impact of the solar eclipse on radio propagation.

“Radio wave propagation is affected by the electrical part of the atmosphere and during the eclipse, we really have the opportunity to collect data and learn more about the impact of these changes on systems we’ve come to rely on,” professor Greg Earle said in a July press release from the university.

Locally, the ham radio operators are putting together a community-friendly event set 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The event will peak midday – according to NASA’s Total Solar Eclipse Interactive Map (eclipse2017.nasa.gov) the start of the partial eclipse begins here at 11:44 a.m. Aug. 21, and the maximum eclipse will occur at 1:15 p.m. when the moon obscures 76.69 percent of the sun. By NASA’s data, the partial eclipse will end here at 2:44 p.m.

Throughout the day, Bennett said, the local ham radio operators (and others like them across the country and around the world) will be scouring the frequencies, making contacts with as many people as possible across the globe and keeping detailed notes.

“As the shadow moves across the continent, the contacts are going to go up or down,” he said. “We don’t know exactly how they’re going to behave, but all of our logs are going to be collected at Virginia Tech, reviewed and they’re going to get a pretty clear picture of how an eclipse is going to change radio behavior.”

Log on to eclipse2017.nasa.gov to learn more about the upcoming celestial event and for instructions on where, when, how to safely view the eclipse.

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