March 27, 2008

Radio Astronomy Research at Arecibo Observatory

My work with Lyle Hoffman, professor of physics. By Shelvean Kapita ’10

Physics major Shelvean Kapita ’10 (Harare, Zimbabwe) spent his Spring Break in Puerto Rico, but not lying on the beach. Endowed with a grant from the National Science Foundation, Kapita performed radio astronomy research with Lyle Hoffman, professor and head of physics, in the Undergraduate ALFALFA (Arecibo Legacy Fast ALFA Survey) Program at Arecibo Observatory, March 15-22, in San Juan. The grant covers a workshop in January and an observation stint at the observatory for Kapita and Hoffman. The following is a first-person account of Kapita’s experience at Arecibo Observatory.

At four o’clock on a warm spring break Sunday afternoon, Professor Hoffman and I finally arrived at the Arecibo Observatory which is located by the Atlantic Ocean about 50 miles west of San Juan, capital of Puerto Rico. With a 305m diameter reflector, the Arecibo telescope is the largest and most sensitive radio telescope that mankind has ever built. The reflector is so stupendously big that its area is about that of, say, 29 football fields.

Jointly run by Cornell University and the National Science Foundation, Arecibo is an important center for research in radio astronomy, atmospheric sciences, and planetary radar. The telescope operates every hour of every day, 24/7, on several projects.

Indeed, it was such a great opportunity for me to spend my spring break there, immersed in astronomical research. Not only was it my first time to get my hands on first grade scientific work, but it was also my first time to spend six nights awake. We spent whole nights observing and doing data analysis, and then went to bed in the morning, woke up in the afternoon, and walked around the evergreen environs of the observatory getting ready for the next observing session.

I was working on a project called ALFALFA (Arecibo Legacy Fast Alfa Survey), which was commenced in 2005 for the purpose of locating distant galaxies that emit radio signals. The project is expected to survey about 7,000 square degrees of the sky and detect more than 25,000 radio wave emitting galaxies from a range of about 3 to 750 million light years away.

On the night of our arrival, I was scheduled to observe with David Kornreich, professor of physics at Humboldt State University, who is spending his sabbatical leave at Arecibo doing research in radio astronomy. During this first Sunday night, I watched how Dr. Kornreich went through the procedures starting from pointing the telescope receiver to the correct position, modifying observation files, creating and naming new files for collecting incoming data from the sky, and how he looked for and recorded signs of radio interference.

Clearly the steps seemed daunting to learn, but thank goodness, I realized I could practice all these steps through a computer simulation called CIMA. So I devoted the first night to learning CIMA, while Dr. Kornreich kept a log of new observing files.

For the remaining five days, I observed together with Professor Hoffman and learned how to operate the telescope, keep track of new data files, and do the closing operations at the end of each observation session. It was a thrilling experience to work on such a project – the mere thought that the waves we were detecting had left their sources millions of years ago, was enough to keep me awake the whole night.

This experience helped me to understand how experimental science is done, and to appreciate the role of careful observation in astronomy. My interest in science was strengthened, and I developed an appreciation for the importance of computer programming in modern astronomy.

I am grateful to the Lafayette College physics department, which has been like family to me, and to the undergraduate ALFALFA program for providing me with funding to travel to Arecibo, and for allowing me to tinker with the telescope.

In the summer of 2007, Kapita performed research with Anthony Novaco, Metzger Professor of Physics, on a project called “Chaotic Pinning of Xenon on a Platinum Surface.” He is currently a McKelvy Scholar as well as a member of the Physics Club, Math Club, and International Students Association.

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