Star Struck: FVCC Student Participates in NASA Research Project

Picture of Kristine PyeFVCC students get to conduct original research in a variety of disciplines during their first two years of college, an experience that students at four-year institutions may not have until their junior or senior year. Sophomore Kristine Pye is no exception. During her time at FVCC, Kristine has participated in cutting-edge research projects funded by the Montana Space Grant Consortium and NASA.

Kristine and students from Montana State University, University of Montana, Miles City Community College and Chief Dull Knife Community College collaborated to collect atmospheric data during the Great American Solar Eclipse on August 21, 2017. The team traveled to Fort Laramie, Wyoming and launched 18 radiosonde balloons and two large payload balloons into the stratosphere to measure changes in air pressure, temperature, wind speed and other elements during the eclipse. Check out this time-lapse video of the launch.

Their data, combined with data collected by other student teams scattered across the eclipse’s path of totality, will help scientists better understand this rare astronomical event. In addition to measuring atmospheric elements, the student teams captured live video feed and images of the eclipse from 100,000 feet, the first time in history that an eclipse has been recorded from a high altitude balloon with network coverage across a continent:

During a presentation at FVCC’s weekly STEM colloquium, Kristine said it was a highly valuable experience to be able to collaborate with students from other schools, because it is imperative that scientists are able to work well with other scientists.

As she prepares to wrap up her studies at FVCC, Kristine is putting the finishing touches on another one of her research projects… designing and building a prototype 4-channel polarimeter using conventional off-the-shelf optical components. You might be wondering what a polarimeter is.

First, let’s shed some light on light. Light waves are actually electric and magnetic waves, oscillating back-and-forth as they move, not unlike how a wave on the ocean moves up and down as it travels across the surface. Polarization is defined as the orientation of the electric field wave. This orientation is generally invisible to our naked eye, and polarized sun glasses only filter this light in one particular direction.  A polarimeter fully measures the electric field and quantifies exactly the polarization of input light.

Picture of a polarimeter

Kristine’s polarimeter is part of a larger NASA-funded project, Nanostructured Polarization Optics for Atmospheric Remote Sensing. The purpose of the project is to develop new measuring capabilities for future satellite missions, which will quantify the composition of clouds, one of the biggest uncertainties in climate modeling.  Kristine’s research, combined with that of other undergraduate physics students who are participating in this project, has the potential to help scientists better understand one of the greatest threats to life on Earth….climate change.

Kristine is transferring from FVCC to MSU-Bozeman in January to pursue a bachelor’s degree in physics with the ultimate goal of studying astrophysics. FVCC wishes Kristine the best of luck as she continues her academic journey at MSU, and we look forward to hearing about her future research projects.