In the tiny town of North Pole, Alaska, the sun currently creeps into view
for just three or four hours a day. Temperatures typically crash in February
to minus-30 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. And bears aren’t uncommon in these
parts — mother grizzlies have on occasion sheltered their cubs in the woods
near the local high school.

But none of that can chill the enthusiasm of North Pole High School math
teacher Dr. Curt Szuberla and his student team of aspiring scientists and
engineers, who braved the elements this winter on NASA’s behalf to scout
locations for and build a very-low-frequency radio receiver, or VLF.

The receiver will help NASA and students around the nation study the eerie
“music” of planet Earth — radio waves emitted by lightning strikes and
other natural phenomena, which VLF receivers deliver as a weirdly beautiful

VLF receiver systems are simple gadgets, little more than an antenna and an
audio amplifier, which translate radio waves — inaudible to humans — into
acoustic oscillations we can hear. In 1990, space scientist Bill Taylor of
NASA’s Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt, Md., and Bill Pine, an
enterprising science teacher at Chaffey High School in Ontario, Calif.,
founded the Interactive NASA Space Physics Ionosphere Radio Experiments
program, or INSPIRE, which uses these receivers to bring the excitement of
studying very-low-frequency radio waves into the classroom.

INSPIRE, a non-profit education program managed at the Goddard Center,
encourages students to build and activate VLF receiver systems and develop
their own research projects. To date, more than 1,500 receivers have been
built at elementary schools and high schools across North America. But none
as far north as North Pole, Alaska.

Enter Szuberla, who holds a doctorate in physics, and his quartet of field
researchers, 16-year-olds Kit Dawson and Matt Welch and 17-year-olds Matt
Keller and Nicolas Leland — all juniors studying calculus and advanced
computer programming.

Szuberla, in consultation with NASA researchers Jim Spann, Mitzi Adams and
Dennis Gallagher of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.,
recognized a unique opportunity to use the INSPIRE concept in a new way —
bringing the hunt for ghostly Earth music to a whole new generation of

Earth’s protective magnetic field is familiar to most people, but perhaps
less well known is the way it expands around the planet’s equator and
converges at the North and South Poles. “Space weather” — activity on the
Sun such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which can change the
interplanetary magnetic field and cause dazzling auroral light displays and
other disturbances in Earth’s own magnetic field — make the polar regions
more favorable sites for VLF systems to pick up natural Earth sounds.

At the “top” of the world, Szuberla’s team also will record the
low-frequency music of another natural phenomenon — the aurora borealis —
and stream it via the Internet to the entire INSPIRE community, and to
classrooms and Web users worldwide.

For Szuberla’s students, that meant finding an ideal site for the VLF system
and building the equipment. Wary of uncertain local terrain that could block
or muffle radio waves — and equally wary of bears — the team settled on
the school roof. To construct the VLF system itself, they traveled to the
University of Alaska in nearby Fairbanks to learn how to solder transistors
and other miniature components to build the receiver.

That hands-on experience was eye-opening. “I like the fact that when you’re
done, you’re holding something that does a job it couldn’t do before,”
Leland said.

“Assembling the receiver really helped me understand some of the work in our
classes,” Keller said. “It definitely reinforced my interest in working with

Szuberla enjoys their enthusiasm. “Right now, they’re primarily interested
in what goes into the box,” he said. “In the spring, they’ll learn what
comes out of it.”

It may not take that long to pique their interest. During their initial
equipment tests, Szuberla’s students quickly became fascinated by the bursts
of “sferics,” “tweeks” and “whistlers” — nicknames for lightning-spawned
radio waves translated by the VLF system into audible scratches, chirps and
squeals. The team will test their apparatus during the spring term, sending
audio to Spann and his colleagues at the Marshall Center for verification of
a clean signal.

In the fall of 2005, the Marshall Center’s Space Science branch at the
National Space Science and Technology Center in Huntsville will initiate a
Web-based “Earthsounds Scavenger Hunt” program. The three-year education
initiative, based on INSPIRE and made possible by a grant in 2004 from
NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, will challenge students nationwide to
use VLFs to “hunt” for natural Earthsounds — sparking their interest in
science and space.

During the 2005-2006 school year, NASA and North Pole High School will
stream real-time audio via the Internet. Schools around the country will be
invited to join a pilot program to fine-tune the project, but the site will
be accessible for all interested users. NASA will open the “Scavenger Hunt”
program to high schools nationwide in 2006.

For more information on the Internet about NASA’s science endeavors, visit:

To learn more about the INSPIRE program and how to build a VLF receiver,

For more information about the National Space Science and Technology Center,