Sept. 11 , 2006
Oversized birdbath provides birds-eye view of the universe
BY beverly clark
The bowl-shaped curiosity is a 25-foot satellite dish recently reborn as a radio telescope—the first of its kind on the Emory campus, and the largest in Atlanta. The dish was installed more than 20 years ago and once allowed the political science department to “eavesdrop” on the former Soviet Union. The dish eventually became an unused oddity destined for the scrap heap but was saved thanks to creative strategies and a last minute reprieve from the Department of Physics.
The radio telescope will be used mainly for teaching undergraduates how to map the galaxy using radio waves generated in and beyond our galaxy, said Ray DuVarney, physics chair, and Richard Williamon, director of Emory’s planetarium and a senior lecturer in physics. The first bits of data were generated by the telescope this summer, and they expect students to use it regularly by spring semester.
The radio telescope came close to not happening at all. DuVarney and Horace Dale, a physics research associate, were standing outside the Mathematics and Science Center in 2004 and, while peering at the dish, Dale casually commented that it would probably make a good radio telescope.
DuVarney made a few calls and learned that it was slated for removal in mere days. A quick call to campus services manager Daniel Cook halted the process. “If I had not called Daniel that very afternoon, the work order contract to take it down would have been signed and we would have been out of luck,” DuVarney said.
“I’m glad we were able to catch it before it came down,” said Dale, who rebuilt damaged parts of the dish in the physics department’s machine shop. “Before it was taking up space, but now it is a practical tool we can use to teach the fundamentals of radio astronomy to students.”
The radio telescope is an invaluable addition to Emory’s astronomy program, which only began offering a major in 2003, said Williamon.
“A radio telescope is similar to an optical telescope in that both collect and concentrate electromagnetic radiation. With this tool at our disposal, we can now look at the same object at a different wavelength, which allows us to look at all of the energies across the spectrum,” Williamon said.
The dish was initially installed in January 1985. 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 former 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 intercepted by Mickiewicz (who is now at Duke University) were beamed from a Soviet satellite over Africa. The broadcasts provided a wealth of information on Soviet propaganda for 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.
DuVarney said the costs involved in retrofitting the dish were minimal, and much cheaper than building a radio telescope from scratch.
“Campus Services did a tremendous job helping us get it fixed up, and it was a team effort all around,” DuVarney said. He adding that they tapped into the technical expertise of colleagues at Agnes Scott College and Fernbank Science Center to get the telescope up and running, and Whiting-Turner Construction donated labor to help fix up the area.