- By Dr. Reichart
ERIRA is a unique experience that we have developed over 20+ years to encourage majors and potential majors to get excited about and get involved in research.
Every summer since 1992, Prof. Dan Reichart of the University of North Carolina (UNC) and a small group of radio astronomy educators from across the country have taken 15 mostly undergraduate students but also a few high school students and occasionally a member of the general public on an intense, one-week workshop at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, West Virginia called “Educational Research in Radio Astronomy”, or ERIRA. To participate, students must complete a short application, after which we select them on the basis of enthusiasm first, and background in astronomy and science second. This makes for a diverse and highly motivated group. ERIRA is funded by NSF ESP Award 0943305.
Radio astronomy is a wonderful teaching tool: Unlike optical astronomy, it can be done during the day when students are naturally awake, and it can be done through most weather conditions. Coupled with optical astronomy, it is a powerful package: It fosters a better understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum and the important role that multi-wavelength observations play in 21st-century astronomy. Furthermore, it exposes students to a wide range of astrophysical phenomena – solar system objects, star-forming regions, supernova remnants, galaxies, quasars – and a wide range of emission processes – blackbody, synchrotron, bremsstrahlung, radio and optical emission lines – in ways that are fundamentally different than when they are experienced in only one waveband or the other. However, due to the prohibitive cost of building, operating, and maintaining sufficiently large radio telescopes, most astronomy programs do not teach radio astronomy, at least not in an observational or laboratory setting. Overcoming this has been one of the driving principles behind ERIRA.
The students begin the week by learning how to use Green Bank’s 40-foot diameter telescope and its neutral-hydrogen spectrometer (which came from Green Bank’s 300-foot diameter telescope after it collapsed). Working in five teams of three, they map most of the Galactic plane and a few extragalactic and solar system regions of interest using data acquisition software that we have developed. Given that the 40-foot is a transit telescope, this requires days of almost around-the-clock observing. The students then produce images of these regions, again using software that we have developed. From these images, they “discover” supernova remnants, star-forming regions, galaxies, and quasars, as well as solar system objects like the sun, the moon, and Jupiter.
Meanwhile, the students begin work on smaller, more research-oriented projects. These projects usually include:
- Producing a tri-color image of the Andromeda galaxy’s disk and estimating its mass
- Measuring and interpreting the changing fading rate of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia
- Detecting Jupiter and showing that it cannot be a thermal source
- Constructing an antenna to detect Jupiter’s moon Io interacting with Jupiter’s magnetic field
- Measuring the rotation curve and mass distribution our galaxy using the 21-cm emission line of neutral hydrogen
- Producing a tri-color image of a portion of our galaxy and showing that it is warped
- Measuring the surface temperature of the moon
- “Deep” and polarimetric imaging of the Orion Nebula and the North Polar Spur
- Using the 40-foot to predict sunspot numbers and other measures of solar activity
- Constructing an antenna to predict sunspot numbers and other measures of solar activity
- Constructing a 2-meter diameter radio telescope that is good enough to detect the sun
Using robotic telescopes that UNC has built in the Chilean Andes, we have also been offering a number of optical projects. Typically, each student selects two or three of these radio and optical projects. Unlike the mapping project described above, the students are responsible for the design of these projects as well as their observations. However, typically 5 – 7 educators are on hand to help. All teams present their results to their fellow participants on the final day.
Between observing with the 40-foot and working on their projects, the students attend a crash course on basic radio astronomy, special interest talks by the educators, research talks by both the educators and fellow participants who have already begun research at their home institutions, and a walking tour of the observatory, which includes the Green Bank Telescope, the world’s largest fully steerable telescope. Altogether, there is very little time for sleep. This is particularly true the night before final presentations. However, the students thrive and bond under these conditions and would not have it any other way. For example, here is a quote from one of ERIRA 2010′s students:
“Thank you again for giving me, and others, the opportunity to participate in such an awesome program. I not only learned so much about radio astronomy, but I learned more about myself and what I can do when pushed to the limits. I formed many friendships and made lasting memories during my stay at Green Bank, and for that I am grateful. Never has a week been so exhausting, yet so much fun! It was and probably will be the highlight of my undergraduate experience. Thanks again.” – Ben Andrews, UNC
For the educators, this week is more than one of service, but one of learning from each other, brainstorming new approaches, and trying them out on the spot with the most receptive group of students that we will ever find. In many ways, we get as much out of the experience as they do.