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QST Article Sparks New University Program

09/16/2010

It all started with the June 2009 issue of QST. Larry Barr, K5WLF -- Planetarium Manager at Tarleton State University (TSU) in Stephenville, Texas -- was reading QST when he came across an article about exploring the basics of radio astronomy through a homebrew, easy-to-construct radio telescope. The article -- written by ARRL Education and Technology Program Coordinator Mark Spencer, WA8SME -- showed how to turn an everyday satellite TV dish antenna into an instrument that can be used to not only broaden horizons and expand the understanding of our universe, but to marry the magic of Amateur Radio and astronomy.

Barr quickly got to thinking. He showed the article to his supervisor, Dr Shaukat Goderya, the Director of the Program for Astronomy Education and Research at TSU. Barr and Goderya began brainstorming on how they could do something like that in the department. And thus began the latest research program in radio astronomy for the Tarleton Observatory.

Barr told the ARRL he was initially intrigued by the idea of building a small radio telescope using a cast-off satellite TV antenna and a commercially available satellite signal monitor. “We modified the monitor by adding a small circuit, allowing it to drive a laptop computer’s soundcard to gather data and for signal processing. I thought this would be an interesting way to provide hands-on experience for the students here at TSU with tangible results.”

Barr said that he contacted ARRL Education and Technology Program Coordinator Mark Spencer, WA8SME, to inquire about how he could bring such a program to TSU. “I told Mark that we wanted to purchase two kits, but he told me that since we were an educational institution, we were eligible for one kit at no charge. So we ended up getting three kits.”

Barr and Goderya selected three students from TSU’s Engineering Physics department to work in the program: Courtney Sullivan, Jake Rhodes and James Boshart. Under Barr’s direction and guidance, the three students did all the construction and fabrication work for the project. “In the process of building the add-in circuits for the signal monitor, they learned to solder,” Barr said. “While fabricating the antenna mounts, all of them learned the art of welding.” And while working on the project, both Sullivan and Rhodes earned their Technician license. Sullivan’s call is KF5HYE and Rhodes’ is KF5HYD. “I’m really proud of their accomplishments,” Barr said.

The group has since constructed three systems that all have now been calibrated and are gathering data. Barr said that the next step is to use the three systems together in a triangular array as an interferometer, allowing the three dishes to be used as one big dish. “In this mode,” he explained,” the signals from the systems are combined and the sensitivity of the complete system is equivalent to that of a single dish of a diameter equal to the distance between the individual dishes.” Barr said that even though the dishes are gathering data, it will be some time before that data is reduced and usable.

Barr told the ARRL that each of the students will then complete an individual research program under Goderya’s supervision: “The students will each prepare presentations describing their research for conventions such as Tarleton Symposium, Texas A&M Pathways conference and American Association of Physics Teachers/American Physical Society and others. They have been invited to present the details of the project to the Stephenville Lions Club, Stephenville Kiwanis Club and the Tarleton Area Amateur Radio Club.”



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