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Professor Jim LaBelle, with students Can a Robot Predict Space Weather?

Professor Jim LaBelle, with students Erin Smith ’07 (center) and Elizabeth Jackson ’06 (right), is building a portable lab called ARRO that will gather data important in space weather research.

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Remote sensing in polar regions can help relay data about earth’s magnetic fields

While Mary Hudson and her team build space weather models, a complementary Dartmouth group pursues some terrestrial data gathering.

“Mary’s models need data, and we’re building a portable laboratory to gather it,” says Marc Lessard, a Research Assistant Professor at the Thayer School of Engineering.

Lessard and his colleague Jim LaBelle, a Professor of Physics and Astronomy, are building ARRO, an Autonomous, Remote, Real-time Observatory. It will contain instruments designed to capture data about magnetic fields, the frequencies of radio waves, and images of auroral phenomena, which are low altitude displays of activity in the magnetosphere. The goal is to create a portable laboratory that can be easily duplicated and deployed at numerous locations around the South Pole. The polar regions, both north and south, are where the earth’s interactions with the ionosphere and magnetosphere are easily measured.

“The observatory will contribute to space weather research, but we’re not connected directly to the CISM project. ARRO will get data from all those places in Antarctica in real time, and it will give a real-time diagnosis of what’s happening,” says LaBelle. “Most of our instruments will look at the physical processes that are going on at a smaller scale than the larger space weather models, so the motivation for our experiments is not immediately space weather; it’s more to know about the physics.”

The observatory will be a cube, 10- to 12-feet square, with 3-foot thick walls. The thickly insulated walls ensure that the instruments inside will enjoy a pleasant climate in an environment where the temperature outside regularly drops to 100 degrees below zero.

“Right now, it’s an engineering challenge to build this platform that will sit in the Antarctic,” says LaBelle. “Eventually, we’ll also have a scientific project to go with it as we build the instrumentation.”

The scientists are working through some battery-life calculations as they figure out how to store energy to help maintain the temperature and run the equipment. They are hoping to be able to capture and store both wind and solar power. The wind in Antarctica where ARRO will reside is steady, according to LaBelle and Lessard, but sunlight disappears from late March to late September.

The portable laboratory will be designed to be delivered in pieces to remote Antarctic areas. Researchers would stay a few days to assemble ARRO and to test its equipment, and then leave it there for a season or two. The construction part of the project requires careful planning.

“It’s the factor of three,” says LaBelle. “You have to add the factor of three for doing anything down on the polar plateau; it takes three times as long because it’s cold and it’s a high altitude. Even in the summer it’s minus twenty-six.”

LeBelle, Lessard and their collaborators hope to build an ARRO prototype this summer and test it this fall and winter on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. This site isn’t ideal, because it doesn’t get as cold on Mount Washington, and the wind on the mountain is much stronger than some areas of the Antarctic.

“But it’s as close as we can get here. I think we’ll learn a lot,” says Lessard.


  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory Dartmouth College
  • Stanford University
  • Mount Washington Observatory
  • University of Maryland
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