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Students aid professor researching lightning on the edge of space

Ryan Haaland, chair of the Physics & Engineering department, instructs a physics class in one of his signature bow ties.

Ryan Haaland, chair of the Physics & Engineering department, instructs a physics class in one of his signature bow ties. 

Ask any of the 275 students in the Physics & Engineering Department at Fort Lewis College what a “sprite” is, and they’re probably not going to tell you it’s a soft drink or a green fairy from a mythical land. Their responses might be something more like this:

“A ghostly flash above the clouds.”

“Violent, beautiful bursts of energy.”

“Vertical, red-orangery lightning.”

“A rare occurrence.”

The “sprites” they're referring to are huge electrical discharges on the edge of the Earth's atmosphere, appearing high over particularly violent thunderstorms. Like a colorful nuclear explosion, this rare – and once thought mythical – type of lightning can occur up to 60 miles into space and descend dozens of miles into the stratosphere with electric tendrils.

FLC students learned about this phenomenon from Physics & Engineering professor Ryan Haaland, who has spent the last twelve years researching the sprite phenomenon – work that has included extended flights into areas of intense thunderstorms. It was in just such a storm in 2011 that Haaland recorded the first 3D-video of the mysterious lightning discharges with a team from the Japanese television series “The Cosmic Shore.”

Haaland's pioneering high-altitude research has also been covered in national media, and was featured in a recent episode of the PBS science series Nova titled “At the Edge of Space.”

“In terms of how we are documenting our research, we are the only people on the planet doing it,” Haaland said. And since 2006, he has been making those groundbreaking achievements with the help of his students, both in the classroom and in the field. Student researchers are also listed as co-authors on refereed journal publications and poster presentations at national conferences.

Sprites, a scientific fascination since the late 1980s, are large scale electrical charges in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, Haaland says.  “Think of the spark you sometimes get from static buildup between your hand and a doorknob, or your hand and your pet,” he explains. “In the same way, when enough charge builds up between atoms, the air itself will break down and create a spark. Because sprites occur in the much thinner air of the upper atmosphere, the discharge looks very different from a more-familiar phenomenon — lightning.”

Every other summer, Haaland uses funding from the National Science Foundation to take a few student researchers storm chasing with him. Although students are not suiting up to fly 45,000 feet above the earth in Gulfstream jets — something Haaland himself does — they are doing something that no one else is: Haaland's students are working with a hundred scientists from around the world to determine if sprites create any significant impacts within the earth’s upper atmosphere.

When Sesh Kanury, an Engineering-Physics major from South Bend, Indiana, took a preliminary physics course at FLC, Haaland showed the class some of the first color photographs of sprites in existence. After the presentation, another student, Matthew Klema, an Engineering major from Durango, approached Kanury on the way out of class and proposed that they find out more about Haaland’s research on the little-known electrical charges.

“I was first impressed by Dr. Haaland and his ability to impart his incredible knowledge in a straight forward and smart manner to all levels of students,” Klema said.

And it wasn't long before Klema and Kanury found themselves engaged in Haaland's “gritty and grimy field work,” as Haaland likes to call it.

Last summer, Klema and Kanury spent three weeks working at night from the National Solar Observatory at 9,000 feet in Sunspot, New Mexico, observing the upper atmosphere. A remote team working with the images would send the students text-based data telling them where to point the cameras. 

“The best part about the experience was the trouble shooting and critical thinking that my researcher partner, Sesh, and I had to go through to gather this information every evening,” says Klema. “And the trust that Haaland placed in us to keep things working and get the information needed, as he was stationed in another location hundreds of miles away.”

Even beyond capturing sprites, the field work offered much more than credits towards a degree or material for a senior project. Kanury says that when they weren’t actually spotting sprites, they learned about lightning research, rocket-test pads, hiked in the White Sands National Monument, talked with world-renowned scientists, toured the National Solar Observatory facilities, and checked out huge telescopes.

“The students aren't going to graduate and get a job researching sprites; that's not the point,” says Haaland about the value of this kind of real-world science experience. “The point is, they've done something unique: They've done experimental field work that requires them to problem solve in real time, to think about what's going on, and to contribute to a scientific endeavor. Those sorts of things, as a scientist, are what we want to do and what we want to inspire our students to do.”

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