Interview: Ham Radio Science Citizen Investigation (HamSCI) Founder, Dr. Nathaniel Frissell, W2NAF (Part 1)

Dr. Nathaniel Frissell, W2NAF, is a space physicist, electrical engineer, university professor, and the founder of HamSCI, an amateur radio organization begun by ham-scientists to study upper atmospheric and space physics. In part one of this two-part Q and A with OnAllBands, he tells us all about his part in HamSCI; the Personal Space Weather Station; projects to do with the 2023 and 2024 solar eclipses; how solar storms can impact the economy; ionospheric disturbances; how he earned his Technician’s license by age 15; and the best ways to get involved in HamSCI and amateur radio.

How did you initially get involved in ham radio and at what age? What early amateur radio experiences influenced your decision to pursue your degrees, career path, and most profoundly influenced your life?

I first learned about ham radio while on a Boy Scouts of America Jamboree-on-the-Air campout when I was middle-school aged. My troop spent the weekend at Camp Glen Gray in Mahwah, New Jersey for a district-wide camporee. It was cold, wet, and rainy that weekend, but Greg Nitkowski, N2BSA, had his HF radio set up with a simple dipole in the Old Guard Cabin. I went in and heard the crackle of the static and the voices of people from far away. I was immediately fascinated and eventually went on to get my license. Greg, N2BSA, was my Elmer through the whole process and even took me to my first Hamvention.

I started earning my license at the 1997 National Scout Jamboree (age 14). The K2BSA station had VE sessions every night, and I ended up spending almost the entire Jamboree at the campsite of a troop that I had no prior connection with simply because they had copies of Now You’re Talking and let me study. In spite of a lot of effort, I only earned a CSCE for the Novice portion. I eventually earned my Technician license a year later just before my CSCE expired, and finally had my ticket! I kept with the hobby through high school, was active with my local clubs, and eventually earned my General and Extra licenses.

I started out as a music education major in college at Montclair State University in New Jersey. However, I really enjoyed both scouting and amateur radio, so I decided to pursue a summer job that matched these interests. At the age of 19, I was hired by Forestburg Scout Reservation in Forestburgh, NY to run their fledgling Technology Center. I taught many technology-related merit badges (including radio), supervised other scout instructors, established the W2FSR amateur radio station, and introduced a Technician’s license class and VE testing program to the camp. It was this experience that made me realize I really wanted to go into electrical engineering rather than music education as a career. My mentors at Forestburg, Ken Brockel, WA2FPB, and Dave Fiedler, WB2CDG, recommended that I pursue a degree in physics since Montclair State did not offer electrical engineering. They told me it was an extremely flexible degree, and I could always pursue a graduate degree in electrical engineering later.

I added the physics major to my program at Montclair State and met another important professor, mentor, friend, and collaborator, Dr. Mary Lou West. Dr. West, an astrophysicist, guided me through my first research project. We studied solar radio observations using data from Montclair State’s RadioJOVE receiver in conjunction with observations of the Northern California DX Foundation’s (NCDXF) propagation network using VE3NEA’s Faros software. Dr. West also enabled me to run a Technician’s course at MSU (which she took and earned KC2NMC) as well as provided roof access to set up the W2MSU club station. Toward the end of my undergraduate degree, I decided I did want to pursue a PhD in electrical engineering. My main requirements for a graduate school were (1) they had a PhD in Electrical Engineering program, (2) it was in an outdoorsy location, and (3) there was an active ham radio club at the school. I decided to go to the 2006 Dayton Hamvention and met the students from the Virginia Tech ARA K4KDJ including Kenny Lewis, K4NNW, and Ben Mills, N4CV. After talking with them and other club members, I decided Virginia Tech was the place for me.

I did not have particularly strong direction when I arrived at Virginia Tech. My main interest was HF radio, but the opportunities for doing a PhD on HF radio were not immediately apparent to me. At the end of my first year at VT, I learned that Dr. Mike Ruohoniemi and Dr. Jo Baker of the SuperDARN project were moving to Virginia Tech from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. SuperDARN is an international network of HF radars designed to study the ionosphere and its connection to space. Mike and Jo hired me right away as a full-time graduate research assistant working on the project, in large part because of my experience and interest in HF radio from amateur radio. This turned out to be a very good fit, and I stayed on with them for the rest of my PhD. I started HamSCI while working as a PhD student, first by publishing on radio blackout seen by the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) resulting from a solar flare, and later by organizing the 2017 Solar Eclipse QSO Party. I graduated Virginia Tech with my PhD in 2016 and then went on to the New Jersey Institute of Technology as a post doc and research professor to continue developing HamSCI. I started as a tenure-track professor of physics and engineering at The University of Scranton in 2019 where I continue to lead HamSCI, work on SuperDARN data, and teach and mentor students. Most of this work is supported by the National Science Foundation and NASA. I also started the W3USR University of Scranton Amateur Radio Club that is building a brand-new amateur radio station, primarily funded by ARDC.

For those who aren’t yet aware of your work, can you provide the background on what HamSCI is, how it came about, and what you and your team hope to contribute to the field of amateur radio within its structure?

HamSCI, the Ham Radio Science Citizen Investigation, is an organization that seeks to bring together the amateur radio and professional scientific communities for mutual benefit. Both groups have similar interests and complementary strengths. The amateurs have a large amount of practical communications experience and the ability to pursue the things that really interest them. Professionals typically have great theoretical knowledge, discipline, and strong academic rigor. Many people have characteristics from both groups. In any case, by getting both groups to get together and work with each other, it is possible to get new and interesting results.

HamSCI started when I was a PhD student at Virginia Tech in the SuperDARN group. I first started working with ham radio data scientifically in 2014 when I published an article in Space Weather Journal showing how radio spots observed by the Reverse Beacon Network cut out in response to ionospheric absorption caused by a solar flare. A few years later, I met other researchers at Virginia Tech who were planning to study the ionospheric response to the 2017 American Total Solar Eclipse using conventional, professional techniques. I suggested that we could use the RBN to study the eclipse effects which led to the development of the Solar Eclipse QSO Party and HamSCI.

I hope that HamSCI can help amateurs better understand the science behind the radio propagation they use and then use that knowledge to make the amateur radio hobby more enjoyable for themselves. I hope that we can develop new technologies to both measure and predict radio propagation, which may be of interest to contesters, DXers, and emergency communicators. I also hope that amateurs can learn to enjoy the scientific pursuit itself; that is, the hobby of using amateur radio for science.

You mention several ways to get involved in HamSCI on the website. Are there specific channels you would recommend to a newbie ham versus an Elmer?

Yes, there are many different ways people can get involved, both directly and indirectly. People who like building and data collection may be interested in building a Grape 1 Personal Space Weather Station. People who like operating may want to join the Solar Eclipse QSO Party (SEQP) planning telecons and then operate in the SEQPs. Amateurs who like doing their own analysis are welcome to discuss their ideas with others on our telecons and then present their findings at our annual HamSCI workshop or write them up for publication.

People can also be indirectly involved just by operating. For instance, every time you get on the air with FT8, WSPRNet, CW, or some digital mode, your signal will be received by the RBN, PSKReporter, or WSPRNet and recorded to central databases for later analysis. Similarly, you can run your own RBN skimmer or PSKReporter or WSPRNet receiver and make a large contribution to the database that way.

To get started, join our HamSCI Google group or hop onto one of our weekly Zoom telecons, both of which can be found here: If you aren’t sure how you can fit in, just hop onto one of our telecons or e-mail and ask! Someone will talk with you about your interests and help give you direction. This is true for both newbies and experienced people alike. We are working on ways to make it easier for new people to learn and participate, but for now, the best thing to do is to join in with an open mind and just ask lots of questions.

Please tell us more about building the Personal Space Weather Station.

The Personal Space Weather Station (PSWS) is a multi-instrument system for studying ionospheric science and monitoring space weather from the ground. A typical PSWS may include an HF radio receiver instrument for studying ionospheric dynamics and a ground magnetometer for observing currents flowing overhead in the ionosphere and even out in space. The HF instrument is different from most amateur receivers in that a strong emphasis is placed on the requirement for making precise frequency time measurement which is accomplished through the use of a GPS-disciplined oscillator.

While we have a few different variants of the PSWS under development, the low-cost Grape v1 is available to build and use now. This system constantly monitors the observed frequency of the precision carrier transmitted by WWV (Colorado) or WWVH (Hawaii) on 2.5, 5, 10, or 15 MHz. The constantly changing ionosphere can cause the propagation path length to change, leading to observable Doppler shifts of up to 1 Hz or more. These measurements allow for the study of traveling ionospheric disturbances, solar flare effects, solar eclipse effects, geomagnetic storm effects, and more. Efforts are currently underway to expand the Grape network in time for the October 14, 2023 Annular and April 8, 2024 Total Solar Eclipses. For more information on building a Grape v1 and on the Grape project, in general, please visit

Some amateurs may be interested in the ground magnetometer which is available from TAPR with additional instructions from HamSCI. This system makes use of a PNI RM3100 sensor module that has a resolution of ~13 nT, which is orders of magnitude more sensitive than the magnetometers in cell phones, and therefore capable of detecting very small variations in the Earth’s magnetic field. It is worth noting that the well-known geomagnetic storm index, Kp, is derived from ground magnetometer measurements. It is also important to note that these magnetometers require installation in rural locations away from manmade magnetic disturbances; amateurs that cannot provide this are encouraged to just use the Grape PSWS which can make effective measurements anywhere WWV or WWVH can be received.

Can you tell us a bit about how ionospheric science impacts amateur radio and improves communication as a whole?

Understanding ionospheric science can help guide our radio operation and antenna system design or at least help us to understand what is happening when we hear odd things on the air.  For instance, because ionospheric absorption due to solar flares adversely affects the lower HF bands more than the upper bands, it would make sense to move to higher frequencies when a flare occurs. Conversely, we know that geomagnetic storms lead to reductions of ionospheric densities, so it makes sense to move to lower frequencies to mitigate main phase storm effects. Also, we know that medium scale traveling ionospheric disturbances have periods of 15 to 60 minutes and occur primarily in the fall and early winter; we can expect more HF fading (QSB) with 15- to 60-minute periods at that time of the year.

Can you break down how space weather events (like solar storms) might affect certain infrastructures on Earth and lead to economic downturns (energy prices/manufacturing/commerce stability)?

Perhaps the most striking example of a recent space weather event taking down infrastructure occurred in early February 2022, when a geomagnetic storm caused the destruction of 38 brand-new Starlink satellites with an estimated economic loss of tens of millions of dollars. Starlink satellites are typically first launched to an orbit of about 210 km altitude, where they undergo engineering tests and commissioning before being thrust up to their operational altitude at approximately 500 km altitude. The 210 km initial orbit was chosen because it is easy to de-orbit satellites from this altitude if they fail their engineering tests. Satellites that are de-orbited fall toward Earth, burn up in the atmosphere, and do not leave behind any space debris. Just prior to launch, a minor geomagnetic storm occurred. Following the launch, an unexpected second geomagnetic storm occurred. These storms led to a 20-30% increase in thermospheric densities at 210 km altitude that corresponded to an increase in satellite drag. This increased drag caused 38 of the 49 satellites to de-orbit and burn up in the atmosphere (Hapgood et al., 2022; Dang et al., 2022; Berger et al., 2023).

This is just one example of how space weather can affect infrastructure. Ionospheric currents due to geomagnetic storms can induce large currents on the power system grid and overwhelm transformers, high-energy particles in the radiation belts can cause satellite malfunctions or damage, and ionospheric scintillations can cause temporary GPS outages that make the system unusable for aircraft operations.

Stay tuned soon for Part Two of our interview with Dr. Nathaniel Frissell as he discusses upcoming HamSCI projects, experiments, the 2023 and 2024 solar eclipses, ionospheric disturbances, and mini-DXpeditions; shares photos and videos of his excursions; and even serenades us with some lovely Christmas carols.

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