Category Archives: ASTRON

My First Article for Sky & Telescope


Things are in a very busy place right now in PhD Student World, so if you want to read something by me I encourage you to head out to your local news stand (remember those?) and pick up a copy of the January 2013 Sky & Telescope (I believe they do a digital edition as well these days).  My first article for them appears in the issue, all about the Dwingeloo radio telescope which I’ve mentioned here before.

This was a fun article to write, and I got to talk to a lot of lovely people while researching it.  It’s also a good one because saying you’ve been published in Sky & Telescope impresses a lot more geeks than saying you’ve written for Astronomy– it’s much more technical a magazine, and many people don’t realize the latter actually has a larger circulation.  Frankly I’m just amazed to see my name there at this stage, and reading my words in such professional circumstances seems bizarre to me.  I certainly never thought I’d be writing an article about a Dutch radio telescope!

Ok, back to busy PhD Student World.  Will re-emerge after my first-ever conference talk which will happen this coming week…

Photo: Dwingelderveld National Park

Taken October 20, 2011

I’m cheating and not using the current view here because trust me, the current view of the area is quite gray and not particularly inspiring.  But I was out here in this remote corner of the eastern Netherlands because it’s where ASTRON is, so I felt the area itself deserved some mention.

The curious detail about ASTRON is it’s in the middle of Dwingelderveld National Park, though I feel obliged to mention that by Dutch standards a national park just means trees and is strikingly similar to the Pittsburgh suburb where I grew up (actually even less so, as there were no fences there!).  This detail manifests himself in curious ways- for example I have no issue sleeping through birds chirping in the wee hours, but hearing that will instinctively make me hop out of bed on the left side as I used to growing up and that’s rather awkward when there’s a wall there instead. (I swear I did this more than once even though I knew I wasn’t in Pittsburgh- and in fact never will hop out of bed at that house again, as my parents sold it about a month ago.)

But anyway, the next time I come out here will be just after Easter, and I’m told the Dutch countryside is quite a sight to see that time of year.  Stay tuned…

Artie Aardvark’s Austin Adventures at AAS

Gather ’round partners, it’s time for Artie Aardvark’s recap of the 219th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Austin, Texas!

Yee-haw, I am off to the biggest astronomy conference in the whole wide world!  This year it is in Austin, Texas, which is so far from the Netherlands I have to fly hours and hours to get there.  I’m glad that gives me lots of time to look out the window! Continue reading

Artie Aardvark Wanders Around Westerbork

To continue our series with Artie, everyone’s favorite aardvark, here is the little scamp exploring the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope (WSRT).

On the last day of Nova school we spent the afternoon going to see the Westerbork radio telescopes, which is about 20 kilometers from ASTRON.  I passed my time on the bus ride making friends with all the astronomers.

After a long drive through the rain we made it- hooray!  The telescopes looked awfully impressive, as all 14 of them were pointed in the same direction tracking a source in the sky.

Here is one of the telescopes up close.  The Westerbork telescopes are interesting because they have an equatorial mount, meaning one axis is parallel to the Earth’s rotation, and most radio telescopes have azimuthal mounts.  This means the Westerbork telescopes can track something in the sky by moving only one axis, but most radio telescopes require two!

After the telescopes detect a radio signal all that information comes here to the correlator, where all the signals are put together so the astronomers can analyze what they see.  There were lots of wires running everywhere- it looks awfully complicated to run a radio telescope!

I also got to see a test of the next generation technology for radio telescopes called EMBRACE, which looked like a giant field of spikes if you ask me.  Basically over the next decade or so radio astronomers are hoping to build the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) which will do exactly what the name sounds like, put an array over an entire square kilometer.  Wow!  Something very, very big like that also needs parts that aren’t too expensive, so they’re hoping to use EMBRACE to show how this telescope of the future will work exactly.

I was also excited to learn that next year they will announce the location of the Square Kilometer Array, either in western Australia or South Africa.  I’m crossing my paws for South Africa to be picked of course!

After that it was time for one last paparazzi shoot, with my friend Oscar’s help-

And after all that excitement I was tired, and snuggled into a pouch in Yvette’s poncho-Hmmm, these kangaroo-style pouches are quite comfy.  Perhaps I won’t mind if they build the SKA in Australia after all!

Artie Aardvark’s Amazing ASTRON Adventures

Before we begin, I’d like to introduce you to my new friend Artie Aardvark.  Artie is the mascot of the AARTFAAC (pronounced “aardvark”) project that I work for at the University of Amsterdam, where we look for transient radio signals from the sky.  Because Artie takes his job seriously he has volunteered to explain Interesting and Important Astronomy Sites this blog may visit, as he rightly assumes that he can explain technical stuff in a better and cuter way than I would myself.  So with that I give you Artie’s Amazing ASTRON Adventures, where ASTRON is the Netherlands institute for radio astronomy ~100km east of Amsterdam.

Oh my goodness I’m so excited, I’m on my way to ASTRON to see what astronomers do!  Here I am on the train looking at the Dutch countryside.  It is very flat and filled with farms so far as I can see.When we made it to ASTRON I could tell because the Dwingeloo Radio Telescope was poking out of the trees!  This was the biggest radio telescope in the world in the 1950s, but now is used by hobbyists.  They do things like detect neutron star pulses and talk to people in around the world by bouncing radio signals off of the moon.  It sounds like a fun hobby to me!

To get close to the telescope we had to put on hardhats.  Mine was a little bit too big…

Nowadays at ASTRON the astronomers help build and run lots of astronomy projects all around the world, and some are even in space!  Here I am inspecting some models of instruments ASTRON is working on for future projects.  I also liked the aluminum blocks on the right side of the table, showing how a heavy solid block could be made a lot lighter by drilling and hollowing out the inside.

I also got to check out a mirror polisher up close that is used to give a telescope mirror the right shape.  I was amazed to learn that “right shape” for astronomers can mean within the thickness of one of my hairs!

In the middle of the tour I got tired, and decided to get some coffee…

… which was good because I was alert enough to help the engineers keep an eye on things at JIVE headquarters!  JIVE is short for Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe, and VLBI is short for Very Long Baseline Interferometry.  It is funny that astronomers like acronyms so much that they have acronyms of acronyms.

JIVE is really cool because they take radio telescopes from all over the world and link them together to make more detailed observations than if you were just using the one telescope.  They can do stuff like pinpoint where a mission orbiting Mars is within meters!

This map shows where telescopes involved with JIVE are around the world.  And all those signals end up here in Holland!

Tour done, it was time to listen to some lectures.  Yvette was at ASTRON this week for Nova School, a program aimed at first year astronomy PhD students in the Netherlands, so there was a lot of learning for a little aardvark like me.  At least I could help Yvette with her talk on AARTFAAC!  She and my other friends on the team are hoping to monitor the night sky 24/7 to find rare radio outbursts from mystery objects like neutron stars and black holes, and I’m excited to see what they find.

After all that it’s time for a rest, so I’ll talk about some other adventures later.  Thanks to Daniela for helping with the pictures!

Photo: Dwingeloo Radio Observatory

Snapped on my first trip outside Amsterdam in the Netherlands, this is Dwingeloo Radio Observatory.  Constructed in the 1950s, it has a diameter of 25 meters which at the time made it the largest radio telescope in the world.  These days it’s no longer used for research and instead just by amateur radio enthusiasts, but it’s still located right by ASTRON, the headquarters for astronomy research in the Netherlands near the village of Dwingeloo.

Honestly I will be out at ASTRON so many times over the next few years I don’t feel obliged to give a full tour yet (already scheduled to go out twice next month, once for a full week!), but I thought it was a rather nice bit of scientific history to find hiding in a remote corner of Holland.