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ARCC Scholars Travel to New Mexico to Construct Satellite Antennas

Arecibo Remote Command Center Scholars BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS – SEPTEMBER 26, 2012 – A team of six physics students led by Dr. Fredrick Jenet, assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and Director of the Arecibo Remote Command Center Program, traveled to Socorro, New Mexico, from Friday, Sept. 21 to Tuesday, Sept. 25 to construct a new arm the Low Frequency All Sky Monitor (LoFASM) radio antenna array.

The ARCC team from The University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College that was stationed in the New Mexico desert constructed the second of three arrays for the LoFASM Project; the goal of the project is to study short bursts of radio radiation and their origins. The instrument will also study radio interference mitigation techniques in collaboration with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

“It’s a unique opportunity for students to get involved with hardware and software in the astrophysics field,” Jenet said. “They’re learning skills and learning instruments in the very cutting edge of this high-tech industry.”

The first antenna array was constructed earlier in the year in Port Mansfield by the ARCC Scholars with help from high school students enrolled in the 21st Century Astronomy Academy.  The third array is scheduled to be constructed in North Carolina.

“[LoFASM] doesn’t work like a normal telescope,” said Louis Dartez, 21, a graduate student in the Physics program who helped in the construction of the antennas and whose role in the project is to process digital data. “We’re studying radio waves, not just electromagnetic waves.”

Each array, consisting of 12 satellite antennas constructed in a specific configuration, is separated by several thousand kilometers across North America and equipped to observe coincident parts of the sky, which, according to the ARCC Program, would allow the array to identify whether a particular radio wave is of local, atmospheric or astronomical origin.

“The ARCC Scholars are doing real-world applications of scientific concepts in the work we are doing,” Jenet said. “It’s that sort of hands-on experience that not only graduate schools want to see, but which high-tech industry professionals want to see in their applicants as well.”

The students built the radio antenna arrays using design plans from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The funding for the radio antenna arrays comprising the LoFASM Project is supported through a grant from U.S. Department of Defense that was awarded to the Center for Advanced Radio Astronomy in early 2012.

Each antenna takes roughly 10 minutes to construct; the entire array was to be completed in roughly an hours’ time. The other five days were spent compiling data and processing it. The ARCC students took the lead on this project.

Each of the six students participated in the construction of the New Mexico arm of the array, and each student had a specific role to fill during their five day mission. Some students worked on hardware, others worked with software and others work to sift through the data they receive.

Dartez, for example, handles the software that took the signals received by the antennas, converted it to processable, digitized data and compiled it for further study. Later, he took the data and wrote it to disc for the team to go through. He has worked on the LoFASM Project since it began. 

“Through this program, I’ve met many brilliant people working in many different fields,” said Dartez, speaking on the various locales he visited to help in his research. “For my work on LoFASM, I started out in Puerto Rico doing work there. Then I went to work with researchers in Cornell for a few days, and then I worked in West Virginia, then in New Mexico. These experiences have opened up my mind.”

The Arecibo Remote Command Center is a fully operational command center in which students are able to control in real time the Arecibo Observatory radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

“Our physics program is this little hidden gem,” said Grady Lunsford, a third year physics major and member of the ARCC LoFASM team.

ARCC Scholars participate in radio pulsar surveys that involve going through massive amounts of data from the Arecibo Observatory as well as incoming data from the Green Bank Radio Telescope in West Virginia. ARCC Scholars also work on individual research supervised by a department faculty advisor.

“We’ve gone to conferences where some have heard of the ARCC program, but most I’ve spoken to are surprised at the level of work we’re doing as undergraduates,” said Lunsford. “Most are extremely impressed that I’m working with world-class physicists on world-class research. The fact that I get to work at that as an undergrad is exciting.”

For more information, contact Dr. Fredrick Jenet, Associate Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, at 956-882-5131 or merlyn@phys.utb.edu.

For more information on the Arecibo Remote command Centers Scholars Program, visit arcc.phys.utb.edu/scholars.

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