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Science Made Simple
by TaLonne Mefford

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Green Bank Trip

When you look at the night sky, you can see many visible objects because they reflect or emit light. What you don’t see are the other kinds of waves that are emitted by the universe. They can also put off radio waves, microwaves, infrared radiation, ultraviolet light, x-rays, and gamma rays. We can only observe visible light and radio waves from Earth because the Earth’s atmosphere absorbs the other waves. To observe radio waves, a radio telescope must be used.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory operates the world’s largest radio telescope (328-ft. diameter), located in Green Bank. The observatory contains many other telescopes of varying diameters, including one 140-ft. telescope, three 85-ft. telescopes, and a 40-ft. telescope that is an educational instrument for small scale research used by teachers and students ranging from 5th grade to graduate students.

I, along with my astronomy class from Glenville State College, had the opportunity to utilize this educational telescope this month. The telescope was constructed in the early 1960s, and uses the same machinery to operate. The first day, we were taught how to use the machinery and operate the telescope. The most difficult part for me was that the telescope operates as a machine rather than a computer. So, I was the one that had to adjust knobs, flip switches, and start processes, rather than a computer doing it.

Our goal as a class was to observe the Milky Way at different times to determine whether or not the Milky Way is a spiral galaxy. A spiral galaxy is shaped like a flat rotating disk that contains stars, dust, and gases. The Earth’s placement within the Milky Way makes it difficult to determine the shape of it. Think of it as being a single chocolate chip inside a chocolate chip pancake. You cannot leave the pancake and it is hard to see through it.

The data collected can be assessed to determine if the Milky Way is moving toward or away from us. Since the galaxy is a spiral, at some times it should be moving toward us and, at others times, moving away. If you spin in a circle, some objects are moving toward you at one point and away at another. The Milky Way would work in the same manner.

Each group went to the telescope at a different time and collected data for an hour. After this hour, members of each group would work together to calculate the math needed to find what kind of shift (toward or away) the galaxy had. Each group presented their findings on the last day of the trip.

If you enjoy science, you should plan a trip to the NRAO in Green Bank to take advantage of all they have to offer. Hands-on experiences and tours can make science come alive. The Science Center is open Thursday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.


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