12 July 2005

When hobbies and professions intersect

As some of you may or may not know, I am a bit of a neophyte amatuer astronomer. I blame my Astrophysics major in college. Since I have left the boat, I have slowly ramped up my pursuit of this hobby. Part of this habit, errr, hobby is the subscription to Sky and Telescope my wife obtained for me. I was recently reading through the May '05 issue (somehow I skipped this issue) and ran across an article that caught my interest for several reasons.

The article, less than a page long, was a sidebar to an article concerning Gamma Ray Bursts. The reason the sidebar drew my interest was twofold. 1) It discussed how amatuers are contributing to the detection of GRBs; and 2) It concerned how GRBs and solar flares disrupt the ionosphere.

As my senior research project was on solar neutrinos, I have since had an affection for anything conerning our closest star ever since. What really caught my eye, though, was how these amatuer astronomers were detecting solar flares and GRBs. You see, these guys, all members of the American Association of Variable Star Observers detect these incredibly energetic events by measuring how they disrupt the Earth's ionosphere. They do this by determining the radio-propagation properties of the ionosphere with homemade receivers. Any massive event, like a Gamma Ray Burst or solar flare, tends to spike the propogation of radio waves through the ionosphere. Cool, huh?

So how does this intersect with my professional self? Well, the AAVSO uses homemade receivers to track these Sudden Ionospheric Disturbances (SIDs). But if they have receivers, who has the transmitters? Well, you see, the spectrum they monitor is VLF. Yup, in fact, the latest GRB detection was made by an amatuer monitoring the Navy's transmitter in Jim Creek (Oso). The AAVSO guys involved in the SID search even have a list of every major VLF transmitter, from a slew of countries, including ustafish's mainstay, Cutler, ME.

Overall, this seems pretty innocuous, right? Military transmitters being used for good science. While I agree this is true, it still disquiets me. These are our encrypted transmissions to our boats. As a former COMMO & Nav/Ops (a story for another time - ours got fired, replacement had orders but they were a year out - sigh) I have perhaps an oversensitivity to comms security. Sure, these transmissions are encrypted. But the fact that they are regularly monitored and reported on by civlians just disturbs me. I cannot think of any plausible operational information they could cull from those transmissions (even if they decrypted the signal, the transmission would mean nothing to them), but it still gives me pause. Some attitudes die hard, I guess...

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