Astronomy students and faculty celebrated the new small radio telescope (SRT) on May 1 during a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The SRT has a motorized arm that can position the dish to face any part of the sky. Quasars, pulsars, and the afterglow of the Big Bang have all been discoveries of radio astronomy.
(Story contributed by Jim Smith)
When graduate student Amy Steele settled into her seat the first day of an upper-level Radio Astronomy course last January she was anticipating a rigorous four-month exploration of the discipline. The instructor, Meredith Hughes, who had just joined the Astronomy Department as an assistant professor, came with strong credentials in radio astronomy.
Steele was excited. After completing her undergraduate work at Williams College, she had taken four years off to work as the astronomy lab supervisor at the University of Texas at Arlington. Last fall she enrolled as a graduate student at Wesleyan.
Classmates, with the help of Astronomy Department faculty, used the new device to detect the sun.
“Radio astronomy is super powerful,” she said, “and it’s a very rewarding area to work in. It offers the potential for many discoveries in years to come.”
What neither Steele nor any of her fellow students was expecting was the opportunity to actually construct a radio telescope. But that was the task Hughes laid out for them after she had reviewed the course syllabus. Following design specifications for a small radio telescope (SRT) developed by Alan Rogers at MIT’s Haystack Observatory, the students would not only create a functional radio telescope, they would do so by the end of the semester.
The project was made all the more challenging by the fact that there was no kit for the device. “Haystack used to sell SRT kits,” Hughes explained. “Dozens of them were built and many are still in use. But as electronics improved, the original kits became obsolete. Just last summer Alan Rogers retooled the telescope design and they decided to stop producing kits and just publish the plans.
“Working from plans enhances the value of the learning experience,” she adds. “While many of the components are commercially produced, some parts have to be fabricated or assembled. For example, the main light-gathering component is a piece of copper tape wrapped around a foam rod, bolted inside a metal cake pan. It’s both challenging and fun for students.”
Hughes divided her class into three teams, each of which was responsible for a different part of the telescope. Each team would work separately, acquiring and assembling the components for its part of the telescope, but they would also interact.
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