In Upper School Open Studio, one of our teams of students has been busy constructing a radio telescope as their main project, and they have succeeded in receiving images from the GOES-16 satellite! Under the mentorship of Dr. Colin Tinsman, Physics, Math, and Computer Science teacher, the five students in this team took on different leadership roles in the planning, telescope construction, radio transmission, and testing phases of their project. Working both in-person and remote from home, the students were able to work in parallel paths, coming together to discuss challenges and solutions, share knowledge, and gather input during this class that meets three times per week. This authentic project experience allows our students to develop competencies in project management, leadership, and teamwork while learning a lot about how electromagnetic radiation (EM) works and is ever-present in almost everything we do every day.

Grayson students positioning the radio telescope they built.

Their first step in the construction phase was to find a model for the base of their telescope design. Through their research, the students found the perfect blueprint through the University of West Virginia.  They participated in a materials selection and sourcing process and completed their build over this year’s first and second quarters. Their radio telescope signal was configured through a software-defined radio (SDR) receiver.

the radio telescope was configured using an SDR receiver

Testing and calibration of the radio telescope

The third quarter of the year was dedicated to getting a signal from the satellite. GOES-16 is a Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite operated by NASA and NOAA. This satellite sits in a geostationary orbit 22,000 miles above the Earth’s surface, giving meteorologists a birds-eye view of our planet’s weather. The satellite’s Advanced Baseline Imager can see infrared light as well as visible light, allowing it to track the presence of water vapor. The students used their radio telescope as an antenna to focus the weak signals from the far-away satellite to capture images of our planet.

Signals through the receiver are then decoded into visual images.

Our students are now hard at work designing a protective dome, allowing us to keep the telescope outdoors for longer periods to take more images and create an animation showing our atmosphere in motion.

“As far as challenges go, these students have had to learn a lot about radio waves and signal processing,” shares Dr. Tinsman. “For a while, just finding the direction we needed to point the horn in order to receive the signal was a challenge. The satellite signal is so weak that you will not get anything if you are just a few degrees off.”

While having a small group of students split between learning remotely and in-person during the pandemic also added to this project’s complexity, it certainly mirrors what many researchers, scientists, engineers, and countless other fields also faced. By addressing obstacles with creative thinking, the students developed plans for showcasing animations of the atmosphere, the creation of original digital assets, and a website for their final portfolio presentation.

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