Sky-high dreams: KHO, EISCAT officials hoping spacey students play big role in launching new research era

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For university students seeking answers not likely to be asked on other campuses, here’s a biggie: How many can squeeze into the “wagon” of a snowcat for what may be the longest daily commute in Svalbard?

The answer appears to be 17, which fortunately is the same number in a group visiting the Kjell Henriksen Observatory (KHO) recently to study the Northern Lights and other atmospheric phenomena.

“That’s why I’m here, because it’s a passion,” said Katie Ann Herlingshaw, one of the students, in a Euronews story published last month. “This’ll give me some credits towards my PhD but I don’t really care about the credits, I’m here for the science, for the Northern Lights.”

Such attitudes by the students, who are among a total of about 50 involved in studies at the facility this spring, are what KHO officials are hoping for as it looks to double its estimated 25 data collecting devices in the near future. That doubling, in another happenstance, is also what local and national leaders are hoping happens to the overall level of research in Svalbard.

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A group gathers outside one of the satellite dishes at the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association (EISCAT) facility during an open day April 20. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

But unlike the massive task of attempting to vastly expand facilities and offerings at The University Centre in Svalbard – and the delays and frustrations getting national politicians to define and embrace such goals – the project at the mountaintop optical observatory above Mine 7 will be much easier on many levels, said Fred Sigernes, the station’s director.

“I think it will happen because it will be easy. It’s a quick project to start,” he said. Furthermore, “we can easily expand without politicians.”

About 500 square meters of available vacant land are are targeted for the expansion the existing 800-square-meter facility, Sigernes said. He said a formal plan has not been drafted, but the conceptual design is well underway.

His comments came during an “open day” at the observatory and the local European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association (EISCAT) station a few dozen meters down the mountain. Craig Heinselman, director of the station – one of three in northern Scandinavia tracking the interaction between the sun and Earth using ionospheric and magnetospheric data – say he also see the station’s uniqueness playing a key role in luring future students, but expanding the facility is a tricker question.

“We can expand our operations here, but our budget is limited,” he said. “We’re in a bit of a complicated situation because we’re owned by six different nations.”

And while the open day was popular among the mostly local crowd, Heinselman said he doesn’t want it to become “just another stop on the tour” as part of Longyearbyen’s efforts to double its future tourism offerings.