Communications & Space Sciences Laboratory
An interdisciplinary and intercollege component to PSUs Department of Electrical Engineering

From the Swedish steppes to the frozen wasteland of Antarctica, from the launching pads of Wallop's Island Virginia, to the lofty regions of the upper atmosphere, the Communications and Space Sciences Laboratory may well be one of the busiest and most interesting endeavors of the Department of Electrical Engineering. What began forty-five years ago as an off-shoot of the old Engineering Experimental Station, has grown into a remarkably diverse program involving everything from laser technology to the study of ozone depletion.

Originally named the Ionospheric Research Laboratory (a name it kept until 1985), the lab was founded in 1949 by Dr. Arthur H. Waynick. The focus of Dr. Waynick's original experiments was the effect of the ionosphere on low frequency radio transmissions. Everyone who was a radio buff in those dark days before television knows that, on certain days, a radio station from Tucson, Arizona, might suddenly blink on for a few minutes and then disappear. It was the lab's intention to learn how to manipulate this phenomenon and thereby increase the distance a radio wave might travel.

During the 1950's the focus gradually changed to encompass the study of the atmosphere's properties as well as its effect on radio transmissions. The IRL's original facilities included a transmitting station with a four hundred foot antenna, and two receiving stations -one located at college farms, the other mounted on the back of a truck for mobility. As the IRL gained prominence as a research facility, its operating budget increased accordingly. In 1952, the annual budget was about $100,000.

By 1960 it had increased to more than one million dollars annually. The bulk of this money came from the National Science Foundation and other civilian and military agencies.

As well as strengthening Penn State's reputation as a research center, the IRL provided invaluable experience to electrical engineering students at Penn State. Right here, at their finger tips, was a facility that attracted some of the world's most talented electrical engineers. Instead of learning from a book, students could learn first hand as they witnessed a small rocket launching from Wallop's Island. Right here at University Park, the lab's studies provided countless subjects for thesis work. By the early 1960's, in fact, the lab's studies were a leading focus for student research projects at Penn State.

Dr. Waynick retired in 1971 after nearly twenty-five years as the director of the IRL. His dream was carried on by Dr. John Nisbet who succeeded him, and, later, by Dr. John Mathews. The current CSSL Director is Dr. Kultegin Aydin.

Today, the CSSL has expanded its focus to include all levels of the atmosphere. The wandering members of the CSSL can be found in such scattered locations as Puerto Rico, Alaska, and Antarctica. The lab's tools have changed to accommodate the increased demands for furthering our knowledge of the atmosphere lidars, a combination of laser-radar technology, have been employed extensively by the lab. Like much of the lab's equipment, the lidars serve a two-fold purpose. First, they are much more efficient at sending and receiving signals than traditional radar techniques. This means that the lab can get more accurate readings when mapping out the atmosphere's morphology. Second, equipment like lidars can be a course of study all be themselves. Students and faculty have always worked together to improve the lab's equipment. Though the CSSL is primarily a research facility, it has always served as a learning ground for electrical engineering students.

By the time of Dr. Waynick's death in 1982, the old Ionospheric Research Laboratory had grown from a small research facility to a multi-faceted, multi-focused institution. Humans have always looked to the skies and wondered about its mysteries. The faces may change, but the work goes on and on and of course, upward.

Articles written by Intern Mike Shiller

Arecibo images courtesy of the NAIC - Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF