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Student Focus There's more to the sky than meets the eye

Three members of UMaine's Society of Physics Students — Christopher Miller, Aaron Tanenbaum and Alexander De Carlo.

Three members of UMaine's Society of Physics Students — Christopher Miller, Aaron Tanenbaum and Alexander De Carlo.

First star I hear tonight

There’s more to the sky than meets the eye. That’s why students at the University of Maine want to listen to the stars and planets.

With the installation of a radio frequency monitoring station on the roof of UMaine’s Bennett Hall, the students hope to eavesdrop on the clicks and beeps common to radio astronomy – a field they haven’t experienced hands-on because of a lack of equipment.

“The textbooks all mention other radio observatories, but you just see pictures of them in the book,” says engineering physics junior Seth Bolduc of Norridgewock, Maine. “This will be something you can see.”

Seeing radio astronomy come to UMaine was a dream of Paul Smitherman, a graduate student in the Department of Spatial Information Science and Engineering. A few years ago, Smitherman purchased an old-style satellite dish, followed by a receiver from a radio astronomy supply company. And he began tinkering.

“I put it all together and did some experiments, but then it kind of got away from me for a year or so,” Smitherman says.

At the time, he was living in an area that didn’t allow residents to get satellite TV. When a member of the housing office knocked on Smitherman’s door to inquire about the dish, he admitted he was “picking up waves from the stars.”

“Everybody thought I was crazy,” Smitherman says. He dismantled the dish and stored it behind his rental property until it could find a new, permanent home.

With help from Smitherman and some funding from the College of Engineering, Student Government, and the Department of Physics and Astronomy, members of UMaine’s Society of Physics Students began retrofitting the satellite dish for the radio frequency monitoring station.

The students also raised money for an amplifier and other accessories, created a metal stand to support the satellite dish on the roof, and searched for archaic satellite dish parts.

When they came up empty-handed for some pieces, the students replicated them from old photographs.

The satellite dish and amplifier installed this spring will be able to record sounds from the sky to a computer inside the building.

At first, the satellite dish will remain stationary and students will use the Earth’s rotation to collect data at different places in the sky, says Bolduc, who also is treasurer of the Society of Physics Students.

Eventually, the satellite dish will rotate using a motor that will be controlled from the computer inside the building.

“Students at the university will have a really unique experience,” Bolduc says. “It also will augment the opportunities for senior projects.”

For Smitherman, it’s a dream come true to see the project reaching completion.

“It’s exciting,” he says. “You can learn a lot of physics by doing it.”

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May/June 2009

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