NRAO provides radio telescopes to international scientific community
Looking up at the night sky, one can see a plethora of stars scattered above Charlottesville. While adding to the sky's visible splendor, this vast sky also raises curious questions, such as how certain stars and planets were born or when galaxies were formed in the early universe. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the headquarters for which are located on Grounds, provides radio telescope facilities to the scientific community in hopes of exploring these very questions.
"Our mission is to provide state of the art astronomical research facilities to astronomers," NRAO Communications Director Mark Adams said.
Founded in 1965, the NRAO facilities and telescopes are available to any qualified astronomer regardless of institutional or national affiliation. NRAO facilities are under an open proposal system, meaning anyone can propose to use a telescope. Telescope use "is available on a competitive basis to qualified scientists after evaluation of research proposals on the basis of scientific merit, the capability of the instruments to do the work, and the availability of the telescope during the requested time," the organization's Web site states. The NRAO's radio telescopes are located in West Virginia, New Mexico and Chile, and a variety of non-radio telescopes are found in various locations across the country. Acquiring a telescope, however, is highly competitive.
"Telescopes are extremely oversubscribed in that there are more proposals than there is time to use the telescope," said NRAO Janksy Post Doctoral Fellow Brian Kent.
Kent noted there is a large amount of involvement in the organization among University graduate students, who work in the NRAO facilities with various scientists for their masters theses projects and doctoral dissertations.
"Students are able to participate in the entire scientific process," Kent said. "They get to write their proposal, write the technical justification for using the telescope, use the telescope to analyze their data and then publish their results."
In partnership with the University's McCormick Observatory, the NRAO hosted its annual NRAO Astronomy Festival and Open House at its headquarters and held a Jupiter viewing using the observatory's large optical telescope.
"The purpose of the festival is to reach out to the local community and express our appreciation to Charlottesville for the fact that they host our headquarters here," NRAO Assistant Director John Stokes said. "Our administrative headquarters, which are normally closed to the public, are something we open once a year so that the local community can get a taste for what it is we do."
The festival gave the public a more insightful look into the field of radio astronomy. Essentially, radio astronomy studies objects in space that emit radio waves by using telescopes that provide access to a large part of the electromagnetic spectrum.
"We explore the universe across 40 percent of the electromagnetic spectrum, a wider swath than any other branch of astronomy," Stokes said.
This wider swath contains light and color that the naked eye alone cannot perceive, Stokes said.
"There's more to the universe than meets the eye," Stokes said. "Visible light, the colors we can detect through our eyes such as red and violet, are a tiny sliver of the total spectrum of light. There are all sorts of invisible colors, such as ultra-violet rays, infrared red x-rays and gamma rays. Our observatory covers a big chunk of that invisible spectrum."
With radio telescopes, scientists can study phenomena in space often considered invisible, such as black holes, he added.
The festival's activities ranged from making sundials to StarLab Planetarium Shows to exhibits of the various technologies developed at the observatory. Some of the festival's activities were geared specifically toward children, such as the InterStellar Molecular Cloud Maker, which was actually a cotton candy machine. Sara Fitzgerald, educational outreach coordinator for the University's Center for Chemistry of the Universe, displayed ball and stick models at this station to illustrate the shapes of various chemicals and molecules.
"Shapes allow the molecules to be identified by radio telescope, so that's how we can tie in radio astronomy and chemistry," Fitzgerald said, noting that the station gave out cotton candy because of its resemblance to molecular clouds.
All in all, the festival proved successful - nearly 1,000 people, mostly families and children, attended.
"Part of the joy of astronomy is that people are often curious about what we do," Adams said. "Astronomy is one of those sciences where it's relatively straightforward to engage people's imagination and interests"