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Space radar system going up near Fort Hays

8/28/2009

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

It's the university closest to the geographic center of the United States, and that's why Virginia Tech approached Fort Hays State University to join it in a partnership on a giant radar system.

That system, already under construction along Golf Course Road southwest of Hays, was announced Thursday by FHSU President Edward H. Hammond.

The radar system is part of a project that will monitor space weather.

As a partner, FHSU will have a leg up, if you will, on the ability to attract students and faculty who specialize in such endeavors.

Other than the cost of computers and the salary of an intern, all of the expense is being borne by the National Science Foundation.

The FHSU antennas -- two of which will be built -- will be part of the worldwide Super Dual Auroral Radar Network -- SuperDARN.

Hammond made the announcement at a press conference in the lobby of Tomanek Hall, home to the university's science departments.

John Heinrichs, chairman of the university's geoscience department, is thrilled with the partnership.

In announcing the project, Hammond said the radar system will look at space weather, responsible for the northern lights among other things. FHSU will join the ranks of Dartmouth, the University of Alaska and Johns Hopkins in getting a SuperDARN installation.

"Virginia Tech is leading the way in a 10-year project funded by the National Science Foundation," he said.

Hammond was especially proud to announce FHSU will have two such systems, one aimed slightly northeast while the other will be aimed slightly northwest.

Already, Commercial Builders has been pouring a series of concrete pillars that ultimately will hold a network of two-dozen, 56-foot-tall poles that will support wires over 42-foot gaps. Rather than being housed in a dome-shaped facility like a Doppler system to monitor weather, the SuperDARN will look more like a vertical clothes line.

Construction will be done in three phases, Hammond said, with the two remaining phases still to be bid. Likely, the radars will be operational by the end of the year.

"Our location in the center of the United States actually helped us out on this one," Heinrichs said of Virginia Tech's decision to approach FHSU. "Plus, we have land available."

The radar systems will be located on land already owned by FHSU.

Radar waves will be sent aloft, he said, into the ionosphere, the upper part of the atmosphere.

"The main goal of the installation is to map the plasma motion over central North America," Heinrichs said in a statement. "Ionospheric plasma circulates over the entire globe in response to interaction of the solar wind with earth's magnetic field."

That plasma, he said, moves much like a low-pressure system affecting the nation's weather.

"It's not well understood what's moving that ionosphere," Heinrichs said.

Information obtained from radar ultimately will be correlated with weather events near the earth's surface.

Data obtained by the FHSU radar system will be uploaded into the Virginia Tech computer system, but students and faculty here will have access.

"This will open the door for a whole new area of research for Fort Hays State University," Hammond said.