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REU Projects for Summer 2020
at MIT Haystack Observatory

A note on qualifications:

If you do not exactly meet the qualifications listed for one of the projects, you are still welcome to apply! These are not strict requirements but guidelines, and a strong interest in the subject is more important than anything else.

Project 1: Software support for GNSS Total Electron Content (TEC)

Mentors: Anthea Coster
Bill Rideout


Student qualifications: Undergraduate major in physics and/or geophysics preferred. Interest in data analysis and interpretation. Skills in computer science (MATLAB, Python experience preferred).

Project description: This computer science-oriented project will develop programs to fully analyze new GNSS Total Electron Content measurements from receivers that are being deployed for studying space weather and sea ice dynamics in the Arctic and Antarctic. Some of these receivers are being utilized by the geodesy program here at Haystack for analysis of sea ice dynamics. This year we have the opportunity to deploy receivers in an experiment where they would spend one year adrift in the Arctic Ocean. Last year we deployed receivers at a frozen lagoon (Ellson Lagoon) in northern Alaska (Barrow). We would like this data analyzed to see if it can help us in monitoring space weather. In addition, we have deployed multiple receivers as part of the MACAWS program and we would like to study the space weather effects observed.

Project 2: Can the polar vortex affect traveling ionospheric disturbances?

Mentors: Larisa Goncharenko
Anthea Coster
Shunrong Zhang


Student qualifications: This project is suitable for a student with interest in physics, geophysics, applied mathematics, and/or computer science. Programming skills in MATLAB, IDL, and/or Python are beneficial.

Project description: Traveling ionospheric disturbances (TIDs) represent a key dynamic process of energy transfer in the horizontal and vertical directions, and are one of the important sources of ionospheric variability. Although they have been studied for extended period of time, exploring the diversity of the TID excitation mechanisms remains a very active research frontier. This project will attempt to identify sources of medium-scale TIDs (MSTIDs) observed at high to middle northern latitudes and link them to gravity waves generated in the region of the Arctic polar vortex. The project will use GNSS TEC observations to determine and document a range of TID characteristics during different polar vortex configurations, examine TID activity in different geographic regions, and investigate possible connections with the state of the polar vortex.

Project 3: Small Radio Telescope 2020

Mentors: Alan Rogers
John Swoboda
Ryan Volz


Student qualifications: Students with a background in engineering, mathematics, physics or computer science and an enthusiasm for radio astronomy are appropriate for this project. Familiarity with Linux, MATLAB, and/or Python computing would be helpful.

Project description: The Small Radio Telescope (SRT) is an educational tool developed by Haystack Observatory to demonstrate some of the basic aspects of radio technology and its application to astronomy. This has been a long running project at the observatory and has had much success in the past. Occasionally new technology can open up new avenues for long running projects and thus a refresh can be beneficial.

This REU project will take advantage of new developments in software defined radio (SDR) to update the SRT. The goal of the project is to adapt some the latest developments in SDR to the SRT to help make it easier to use within the community. We will also adapt some of the current SRT infrastructure to this new paradigm.

Project 4: AERO (3 students)

Mentors: Phil Erickson
John Swoboda
Ryan Volz
Frank Lind
Mary Knapp
Geoff Crew


Student qualifications: Students with a background in engineering, mathematics, or computer science and an enthusiasm for space science are appropriate for this project. Some familiarity with Unix, MATLAB, and/or Python computing environments would be helpful but are certainly not a rigid prerequisite.

Project description: AERO is a small satellite mission led by Haystack, scheduled for launch in 2022, which will test a novel "Vector Sensor" radio capable of sampling low radio frequencies from orbit in the Earth's auroral zones. The satellite has not yet been fully designed and built, and this provides an excellent opportunity for students to get involved with a space mission at the ground floor and explore some of the capabilities of the sensor, the engineering of the satellite itself and/or aspects of planning for the mission.

We envision a three-student team project working on different aspects of AERO technology and science. At the time of this writing, possible projects could include (but are not limited to):

Project 5: Seismo-geodetic data processing for cryospheric applications in the Arctic and the Antarctic

Mentors: Dhiman Mondal
Pedro Elosegui
John Barrett
Chester Ruszczyk


Student qualifications: Geophysics, physics, mathematics, electrical engineering, or a related science/engineering field with an interest in computer systems and Earth sciences, particularly seismology and geodesy. Basic knowledge of embedded computers and Linux. Knowledge of Python. Passionate about scientific programming and polar science.

Project description: The student will architect and develop a software package to process seismic and geodetic data to study the physical state of the Arctic and/or the Antarctic cryosphere. The data will be collected by a SeismoGeodetic Ice Penetrator (SGIP) instrument in the Antarctic and GNSS Ice-strain Buoy (GIB) in the Arctic, and downloaded via satellite communications in near-real time after its expected deployment in 2021-2022. SGIP sensors include a geophysics-grade broadband seismometer, a geodetic-quality GPS receiver, and various meteorological and engineering parameters. GIB instruments include a geodetic-quality GPS receiver, and various meteorological and engineering parameters. In the course of this internship, the student will be trained with existing seismic and geodetic data from both the Arctic and Antarctica that can be obtained from public data servers, and will learn how to process and manipulate the data using publicly available computer packages and/or self-developed computer programs. The data analysis includes, but is not limited to, handling miniSEED seismic data, RINEX GPS data, and various satellite products such as MODIS imagery. The ultimate goal of the project is to build a science software package that can process SGIP and GIB data automatically, generating data products and visualization tools relevant to cryospheric science.

Project 6: Observing Black Holes with the Event Horizon Telescope (3 students)

Mentors: Vincent Fish
Kazunori Akiyama
Kotaro Moriyama
Lynn Mathews


Student qualifications: This project is well-suited to a student with a background in basic physics and astronomy or computer science. Experience in computer programming such as Python or a high-level scientific analysis package is desirable.

Project description: The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) [] is a planet-wide array of millimeter-wavelength radio telescopes that uses the technique of very long baseline interferometry (VLBI) to observe supermassive black holes. The goals of the EHT include testing general relativity and furthering our understanding of the astrophysics of accretion and outflow processes around black holes.

The EHT is uniquely capable of resolving structures on angular scales of a few Schwarzschild radii around the black holes in the Galactic Center (Sgr A*) and the giant elliptical galaxy Virgo A (M87). The EHT has recently provided the first-ever images of a black hole [] in M87, and EHT observations of Sgr A* and M87 in recent years have resolved their event horizon-scale structures. EHT data are also used to constrain the properties of the accretion flow and jets, to measure the black hole space-time described by its mass and spin, and to test Einstein's general relativity.

In this REU program, we will: (i) investigate a potential extension of the EHT to obtain further higher quality images of Sgr A* and M87, (ii) develop new techniques to constrain the black hole spacetime around Sgr A* using the EHT data, and (iii) develop and test new high-quality, multi-dimensional imaging techniques for the next generation EHT.

Project 7: LEGO: Using Dark Clouds in the Milky Way to Understand Distant Galaxies

Mentor: Jens Kauffmann


Student qualifications: Willingness to learn the Python programming language, ideally demonstrated by previous programming work in some language.

Project description: It is hard to study fine details even in the most nearby galaxies. To give an example, some of the most exciting research today focuses on the formation of stars in the Milky Way and other galaxies. The star-forming sites in the Milky Way, also known as dark clouds, can be studied at an amazing level of detail. We can actually see how individual stars and planets form in our neighborhood. However, if we turn to galaxies, even the best telescopes available today cannot resolve dark clouds at a meaningful level of detail. Astronomers have therefore developed tricks to study the structure of clouds they cannot resolve. They study radiation from a variety of molecules, e.g. hoping that some molecules provide clues on dense gas while others might indicate that a dark cloud is being stirred up by embedded young stars. These are fascinating methods - but they have never been tested in the Milky Way. The LEGO survey therefore images dark clouds in the Milky Way to perform such tests. This teaches us lessons about star formation in the Milky Way and other galaxies.

As part of this program, you will lead a small original research project that uses LEGO data. You will learn how to visualize and analyze the data from several astronomical observatories, and how to draw conclusions from the trends in the data. You will do this as a member in an international collaboration that includes researchers from the US, the EU, Chile, and Japan. Successful projects are expected to produce results that will be published as parts of the LEGO papers.

Project 8: Night Sky Advisory: Summarizing the Sky for Amateur Astronomers

Mentors: Jens Kauffmann
Nancy Kotary


Student qualifications: This project requires good and demonstrated coding skills in Python. General knowledge about the night sky and experience with nighttime observations with binoculars or small telescopes will be an advantage. Experience with building dynamical websites will be a further plus, but not a requirement.

Project description: Amateur astronomers often face the same challenge: the evening sky is clearing up, a starry night is to be expected - but which objects can be viewed that night? Which planet is up at which time of the night? Where are the moons of the planets? Which bright nebulas can be seen?

Numerous software tools for astronomers do, of course, provide answers to these questions. The positions of planets, their moons, and of nebula can also be looked up in almanacs, including those published in public astronomy magazines.

However, no current tool provides all of this information on a single display, calculated for a specific date and location. This would be the idea for this project: to generate a software tool that summarizes all of the relevant information in a single view, for example on a single sheet of paper (as convenient for practical work outdoors) or a webpage.

The vision is to deploy this tool as part of the outreach program of Haystack Observatory. This project is therefore particularly suited for people with substantial coding skills who wish to get involved with public outreach and educational activities.



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