Listening to Heavens WT USE THIS

Professor Hilton's Listening to the Heavens winter term class gathers around a student built radio telescope.

Astronomy, like many other scientific fields, is changing drastically every year. Discoveries and technology that have emerged in the field of astronomy recently include the first picture of a black hole as well as the construction and launch of the James Webb Space Telescope on December 25, 2021. Eckerd has offered the Winter Term course, “Listening to the Heavens,” two times in the past four years. Students who enroll can feel like they are a part of the massive amount of research done to uncover the mysteries of space.

Assistant Professor of Computer Science Michael Hilton leads these students into becoming active astronomers during their four-week term. The course focuses on radio astronomy. This requires the researcher to listen to space rather than look at it through a telescope which is commonly related to astronomers.

“Pulsars in Jupiter make sounds that are interesting to hear, like whistling noises, clicks, and buzzes,” Hilton said. “The students listen to these noises that are in ‘the heavens’ and try to learn what it is they are telling us.” 

The radio waves that they are listening to are a type of electromagnetic radiation. The radio telescope the class employs collects radio light and magnifies it; it is then taken in by instruments that can decipher the radio waves which allow the user to extrapolate data with the feedback. Eventually, the information can create a sort of map that notes the concentrations of radio waves in particular points throughout the galaxy.

The class was tasked with building radio telescopes that were capable of observing and recording data for analysis. They glued aluminum on the inside of foam boards that had been shaped into a rectangular cone. They then connected an antenna to a radio receiver and then the receiver to a laptop. The aluminum’s reflective metal coat is implemented to allow the telescope to funnel down radio waves to the antenna box.

Grace Lukkes, a junior majoring in human development, was drawn to this course because of a general interest in astronomy, and credit requirements. She was taken aback by the visual aspects of the course but was amazed at what they were able to accomplish.

“We used our telescopes to track our galaxy’s rotation, and we did that through recording hydrogen that we were able to see in space,” Lukkes said.

In the earlier weeks of the course, the class was also able to collaborate with the St. Petersburg Astronomy Club. The club brought observational telescopes onto campus and set them up byLewis House. They used the telescopes to visually observe Jupiter, stars, gas clouds, and the moon. 

Cassandra Guzman, a junior majoring in marine science, participated in this collaboration as a part of the class. Her experience in the class allowed her to pick up on how to compile information from graphs in order to map the universe using radio waves instead of visible light.

“My favorite moments were the ones where we were out during the evening,” Guzman said.

The course proved to its students that there is something beyond the atmosphere for everyone, and in plenty of different forms too.  Its visual aspects, the noise it gives off and even the data it holds is unique. The vastness of space means that there are more beautiful discoveries to be made and the field of study will continue to grow beyond what it already is.

“It is my hope to do this course every winter term,” Hilton said. “There are several things that have happened in the world of astronomy since the first time I offered this course.” 

If the heavens are calling you, and you feel moved to contribute to the development of astronomy, check out Hilton’s next Winter Term.

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