Emory Report
October 18, 2004
Volume 57, Number 8


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October 18 , 2004
Dish atop Peavine deck to be reborn as radio telescope

BY Eric rangus

The biggest, rustiest bird’s nest on the entire Emory campus sits like giant, metallic salad bowl atop the Peavine Parking Deck.

Installed nearly 20 years ago, the 25-foot satellite dish once provided the political science department with a wealth of information about an old enemy, but in the years since, it has fallen first into disuse then disrepair.

But now, as a result of creative thinking by the Department of Physics and its astronomy program, the dish soon will be reborn as a radio telescope, the first of its kind on the Emory campus.

“I’ve been parking under that thing for a couple years now,” said physics Senior Lecturer Richard Williamon, director of Emory’s planetarium. “I’d keep looking up and it never moved.”

About a month ago, Williamon began talking about the dish with Ray DuVarney, associate professor and chair of physics. They determined it could be transformed into a radio telescope, an instrument that measures radio waves rather than light images as optical telescopes do. Currently, Emory’s planetarium is outfitted only with optical instruments.

“A lot of telescopes don’t have lenses,” Williamon said. “In some cases, all you have is a mirror that reflects light to a common point into your camera. The same thing is happening here, but instead of light, you are reflecting radio waves.”

DuVarney made a few calls and learned that a work order had been processed by Facilities Management (FM) to dismantle the dish, and the work was tentatively scheduled to be done within a couple of weeks.

“I asked them not to take it down,” DuVarney said. “I was in the process of having it converted.”

The dish may not be much to look at now, but it has an interesting history. It was installed atop the Peavine deck in January 1985, replacing an earlier antenna on the roof of Woodruff Library that had been destroyed by a storm. DuVarney actually helped select the site. Former political science professor and dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Ellen Mickiewicz used the dish to intercept television broadcast signals from the old Soviet Union just before the Cold War came to an end.

In its heyday, the dish pointed east, across campus, aimed almost directly at the horizon. The signals Mickiewicz intercepted were beamed from a Soviet satellite over Africa, so a highly acute angle was necessary to pick them up.

The broadcasts, which were recorded on then-state-of-the-art Super VHS tapes, provided a wealth of information and formed the backbone of Mickiewicz’s 1988 book Split Signals: Television and Politics in the Soviet Union, which won the Electronic Media Book of the Year Award from the National Association of Broadcasters and the Broadcast Education Association.

After Mickiewicz left for Duke in 1993, Russian studies continued to use the dish to pick up broadcasts, but its utility eventually faded away. Ever since, the dish has sat dormant, its salad bowl-like posture offering the least wind resistance. However, at some point, the dish and surrounding fence were damaged, most likely when it was moved out of sequence, DuVarney said.

The costs involved with retrofitting the dish are minimal. All of the maintenance is being performed by Facilities Management (in addition to some structural work, it needs a new coat of paint and the birds who have taken up residence must be chased away); the receivers necessary for the conversion to a radio telescope will be provided by Chris De Pree, director of the Bradley Observatory at Agnes Scott College and an adjunct faculty member at Emory; even repairs to the fence surrounding the dish are being done pro bono—Turner Construction agreed to fix it for free, DuVarney said. Everything should be ready to go in January.

Were Emory to purchase and set up a radio telescope from scratch, the costs could approach $100,000, DuVarney said. Even when new receivers are bought some time in the future—De Pree has a variety of radio receivers, and the plan is to sample several to determine which direction to go—the costs associated with getting the current dish up and running are a fraction of that amount.

A control panel is located in one of Peavine’s stairwells. For a time, DuVarney said the dish could be controlled from there, although the hope is to eventually set up a remote control that can be operated from the Math and Science Center.

“We started our astronomy major last year,” said DuVarney, who added he has never done radio astronomy before and is looking forward to the opportunity. “We have optical telescope on our roof, and now we’ll have the radio one. This is a great addition to our laboratory.”