Physics majors assemble electronics for Small Radio Telescope to record space data

Jun 01, 2014

Thanks to the skills and research efforts of physics majors at North Central College, students and faculty will soon have the opportunity to explore another area of science: radio astronomy.

Underway inside Kroehler Science Center is the construction of a Small Radio Telescope (SRT) based on plans available from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Haystack Observatory. So far, the project has involved the purchase of a satellite dish (pictured) and construction of the electronics to collect and transmit data to a computer for digitization and analysis. During summer 2013, physics majors Bryan Cardwell ’15 and Amy Damitz ’15 tackled the challenge of assembling and testing the electronic components for the SRT. They presented their findings at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research and Rall Symposium for Undergraduate Research.

The project has allowed Cardwell and Damitz to explore a new area of physics. “This has made the area of experimental physics more interesting to me as a career field,” says Cardwell, adding that North Central is one of the first institutions to use the MIT plans for constructing its own instrument.

“Building an SRT is an ideal student project because they gain experience in instrumentation, electronics and computer interfacing,” says Paul Bloom, associate professor of physics. “In other scientific professions you can acquire the instruments you need, but in physics, you often have to build your own.”

Researchers in radio astronomy can use an SRT to “hear” and record very faint activity in the universe. It does so through its sensitivity to electromagnetic microwave emissions of neutral hydrogen, which makes up about 75 percent of the atomic matter in the universe. The motion of the hydrogen relative to the SRT causes the observed microwave frequency to be “Doppler shifted,” much like the pitch of an approaching or receding siren. Observations of different sources of radio emissions have been used to study stars and galaxies, as well as identify and study new classes of objects like radio galaxies, quasars and pulsars.

North Central’s satellite dish will be computer controlled, allowing the dish to point to predetermined locations in the sky and to adjust its orientation to account for the earth’s rotation. The computer also records the data for further analysis. Testing and further development will continue as a student research project this coming summer.

The completed SRT will be mounted on a roof on campus, perhaps at the Residence Hall/Recreation Center and later, on top of the planned science center. “Students will be able to control the SRT remotely over the campus network,” adds Bloom. “We’re excited that this instrument will become part of the physics program’s growing array of advanced laboratory projects.”