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News Releases @ TCC


A new scientific frontier, solar flares can cause extreme damage on earth


Photo by Bradley Smith

TCC professor Iain McKaig shows new students how to use telescopes that, with a spectrograph, will analyze solar flares.


HAMPTON ROADS, Va. – (Fall 2007) – While “solar” news of late has turned to sunscreens and UV protection, important research that could protect the earth from future solar flares is ratcheting up a notch right here in South Hampton Roads.

Working with students, Tidewater Community College science professor Iain McKaig – a published expert in solar prominences – has begun an applied research initiative in solar physics. Widely regarded as the new scientific frontier, the study of “solar flares” – especially predicting their occurrence and severity – under girds McKaig’s project.

The initiative – Student Applied Research Facility in Active Solar Regions (SARFASR), developed by McKaig – sets research assistants to work observing and documenting solar activities, followed by analysis and mathematical modeling. McKaig has selected student researchers from the STEM Pioneer Project, in concert with STEM project director Susan Fincke. STEM, funded by the National Science Foundation, supports female students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics baccalaureate-transfer programs. NSF has acknowledged community colleges as a source of academic talent and encourages research opportunities for students.

Further engaging TCC students, SARFASR will involve Elements of Astronomy, Astronomy I and II classes on the college’s four campuses – approximately 150 students each semester. The STEM research assistants will explain their activities to the classes and ask for student help, including data collection, analysis, observation and documentation. Students will use telescopes in TCC’s new observatory – part of the new science facility at the Virginia Beach Campus – cameras and spectrometers to observe the sun and monitor magnetic flux. The SARFASR team will also maintain a website to chronicle their images and findings.  

According to McKaig, who earned his Ph.D. by mathematically modeling the formation of magnetic field lines that support solar prominences, the study of solar flares has immediate applications. He cites massive solar flares in 2003 that threatened – and destroyed some – communications and scientific satellites, endangered astronauts on the International Space Station, forced re-routing of airliners to lower altitudes to avoid radiation and worldwide monitoring of electrical grids for surges.

“Little is known about the actual birth of these magnificent formations; our work on predicting violent eruptions has far-reaching implications,” says McKaig. “Our students will gain significant experience, with chances to be published in peer-reviewed journals, while contributing to critical scientific research.” Student training begins this summer, with classes joining in and reports generated during each semester for presentation and publishing opportunities.




Laurie White
Media Relations

Tidewater Community College - the largest provider of higher education and Workforce Solutions services in Hampton Roads - enrolls over 38,000 students annually, the second largest undergraduate student body in Virginia. The 35th largest community college in the nation, TCC is among the 20 fastest-growing large two-year institutions in the United States. Founded in 1968 as a part of the Virginia Community College System, the college serves the South Hampton Roads region with campuses in Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach as well as the TCC Jeanne and George Roper Performing Arts Center in the theater district in downtown Norfolk, the Visual Arts Center in Olde Towne Portsmouth and a regional Advanced Technology Center in Virginia Beach. Forty-six percent of the region’s residents attending a college or university in Virginia last fall were enrolled at TCC. For more information, visit