Physics Students Receive a Rare View of the Cosmos

Nicholas Lukow, president of the Society of Physics Students, in front of the Green Bank telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Photo Credit / Ben Schaumloffel
Nicholas Lukow, president of the Society of Physics Students, in front of the Green Bank telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Photo Credit / Ben Schaumloffel

Nicholas Lukow, president of the Society of Physics Students, in front of the Green Bank telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.
Photo Credit / Ben Schaumloffel

By Ben Schaumloffel
SC Contributing Writer

The vastness of space leaves many proverbial stones unturned, and many of those who appreciate the new frontier are keeping a constant watch for the unknown.

Astronomers at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, West Virginia, have been searching the skies for the past 58 years, surveying and recording in an attempt to better understand the cosmos.

Recently, five members of the Society of Physics Students (SPS) were given the opportunity to use NRAO equipment to record data.

Although no long-term studies were done, they observed clouds of hydrogen and supernova remnants spread throughout the disk of our own galaxy, the Milky Way.

The faint spindles of hydrogen are significant because of the detectable shifts in frequency of the radio waves emitted by the clouds. Through some simple calculations, one can determine how fast and in what direction the clouds are moving, leading to a better understanding of the overall structure of the Milky Way.

The supernovae remnants serve as explosive reminders of the powerful processes happening in the interior of stars. They are seen as vast shockwaves and bubbles of superheated matter traveling at tremendous speeds through space. The data returned from these structures provides an insight to the materials that make up the hearts of these deceased stars.

All observations by students were done on a 40-foot diameter radio telescope, which was dwarfed in size by the NRAO’s lead telescope, the Green Bank Telescope (GBT). The GBT is an immensely sensitive and fully movable dish nearly 330 feet in diameter and 480 feet tall, including its mount.

With the increase in dish size, the GBT is able to take vastly superior data when contrasted with the comparatively tiny dish that the students were allowed to work on.

If one were to imagine the two telescopes as buckets left out in a rainstorm, one would logically conclude that the larger bucket would be able to collect more raindrops than the smaller.

For these telescopes, the ability to collect more radio waves and, by extension, more information is critical for detecting the fainter and farther objects in the universe.

One of the GBT operator’s most recent revelations was the discovery of a moon orbiting the BL86 asteroid, which passed Earth on a trajectory reaching 1.3 million miles from the planet at it’s closest.

The asteroid and its moon were imaged using the GBT in conjunction with a radio transmitter in Goldstone, California.

Together, the two pieces of equipment functioned as an immense radar system, with the GBT picking up the radio waves that the transmitter bounced off of the asteroid’s surface.

Because of the immensely sensitive instruments in the area, the observatory is located in a 13,000 square mile radio dead zone. There is no cell service, no Wi-Fi, and the only vehicles allowed near the telescopes are run on diesel engines.

Residents in towns nearby will still frequent old-fashioned phone booths in order to communicate while on the move. The lack of instant communication was simultaneously unsettling and strangely refreshing.

Many of the rooms containing computers functioned as Faraday cages, as the walls contained copper mesh that prevented the radio waves generated by the electronics from straying to the dishes outside. The doors to these rooms were immense copper assemblies, like a bank vault door, complete with a huge lever used to seal them completely.

Overall, SPS members enjoyed the trip and appreciated the experience it offered to them. Students who harbor similar interests are encouraged to join SPS on WarriorLink.

Email Ben at:
bschaumlof@live.esu.edu

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.