Listening to the stars with a Smiley

The Crab Nebula marks the aftermath of a supernova explosion in this image created from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Credit: M. Bietenholz, T. Burchell Nrao/AUI/NSF; B. Schoening/Noao/Aura/NSF

The Crab Nebula marks the aftermath of a supernova explosion in this image created from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Credit: M. Bietenholz, T. Burchell Nrao/AUI/NSF; B. Schoening/Noao/Aura/NSF

While radio astronomy requires a different set of skills and technology than optical astronomy, it has one very important benefit for classroom educators - you can observe the radio spectrum during the school day. I’ve written before about education outreach programs that put radio telescopes in the hands of students. The Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope uses a 34-meter dish retired from Nasa’s Deep Space Network while the Pulse@Parkes program uses Australia’s iconic 64-meter Parkes Radio Telescope. These programs let students in the US and Australia collect data from professional radio telescopes to conduct scientific research. Nasa's Radio Jove program, on the other hand, lets students build their own simple radio telescope using little more than a wire and a receiver.

The 4.6-meter radio dish got its smile during the Cold War when it was part of a National Security Agency intelligence station. The station’s operators pointed Smiley upwards whenever a Soviet spy satellite passed overhead - just to say “hi!” Credit: Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute

The 4.6-meter radio dish got its smile during the Cold War when it was part of a National Security Agency intelligence station. The station’s operators pointed Smiley upwards whenever a Soviet spy satellite passed overhead - just to say “hi!” Credit: Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute

The School of Galactic Radio Astronomy works in between the two extremes. Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (Pari) hosts the 4.6-meter Smiley radio telescope at its campus in the Appalachian forests of North Carolina. Smiley detects the 21-centimeter radio waves emitted by atomic hydrogen surrounding supernova remnants and the black holes in galactic cores. While Smiley’s dish is too small for modern astronomy research, it’s perfect for enhancing science education. 

Pari's professional development workshop introduces science and math teachers to the basics of radio astronomy and how to use the online Smiley Control Room. The teachers go home with a Smiley account that gives their students 10 hours of the telescope’s time. 

The way students control Smiley sets the program apart from other robotic astronomy programs like Observing With Nasa or the Bradford Robotic Telescope. "We wanted the access to the telescope [Smiley] to include real-time control, rather than a robotic system where… the telescope does all the work,” Pari science director Michael Castelaz told SPIE Professional. Those robotic telescopes rely on a scheduler - students request an image of, say, the Orion Nebula and the telescope’s systems automatically point the telescope, record the image, and post it to a site for students to download. Smiley is different. When the students log into the Control Room, they take full control of Smiley telling it where to point and fine tuning its position. A live webcam lets the students watch Smiley move at their command.

Standards-based laboratory modules introduce students to radio astronomy, the use of doppler shift to measure motion, how radio astronomers build maps of radio emission sources, and how to map hydrogen gas across the galactic plane. "Radio astronomy is a perfect fit for our schools because it can be done any time day or night, in any kind of weather," Pari vice president David Clavier told Blueridge Mountain regional newspaper Time-News at a 2007 teacher workshop.

From the archives: Pari has a citizen science project in the optical spectrum. They are scanning photographic plates from their archives. Read how to join their crowdsourced project in “Scoping out stellar rainbows”.

Want to support Small Steps to Space? Check out these radio astronomy resources: