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Cardiff students take control of world’s largest radio telescope

03 December 2009

A group of Cardiff students will take control of one of the world’s most powerful radio telescopes next week (Monday 7th December) as part of an innovative Cardiff University astronomy link-up.

AS and A-level students from Cardiff schools including Whitchurch High and Howells will visit the University’s School of Physics and Astronomy which is playing host to the Parkes telescope, one of the world’s most powerful radio telescopes.

The 64m radio telescope, situated 400km west of Sydney, Australia was used to receive the television transmission of the Apollo 11 moon walk in 1969 and allows astronomers the chance to observe pulsars, along with a whole host of other astronomical observations.

By remotely accessing the radio telescope and working directly with the telescope’s Australian-based operators, students will be given the chance to view pulsars – which are spinning, magnetised neutron stars, left over from massive star explosions.

Pulsars spin and emit radio waves in beams from their poles. The spinning causes the beams to sweep across the Earth, creating pulses of radio waves. By taking control of the telescopes the students have the chance to witness first-hand some of the most striking images and undertake real-time scientific research.

Mr Chris North, from Cardiff University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, said: "Pulse@Parkes is an innovative project that allows students interested in astronomy a unique opportunity to take control of one of the world’s most powerful radio telescope. We are delighted to be hosting it here in Cardiff for its first visit to the UK.

"The students will have the chance to take part in real science with the measurements adding to an archive which may eventually help scientists detect the elusive gravitational waves predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity."

The event is open to A-level and AS-level students with a keen interest in astronomy. The measurements used by the students will also form part of an archive of data that is used to monitor and record the characteristics of pulsars throughout our galaxy, such their distance, their rate of spin and any unusual characteristics.

Cardiff University’s Astronomy Group carries out research in many areas of astronomy, in particular the formation of stars, the origin and evolution of galaxies and the cosmic microwave background.

The University’s School of Physics and Astronomy has one of the most active Gravitational Physics Groups, and remains one of the largest research groups in the School. The Group's search for gravitational waves is focused on transient events such as supernovae and binary neutron stars and black holes, and stochastic gravitational waves.

Cardiff School of Physics and Astronomy
Cardiff has a large and successful School of Physics and Astronomy, attracting some 300 undergraduate and postgraduate students.

Physics research is focused in two areas: condensed matter physics and optoelectronics. Researchers are using theoretical and practical techniques to answer fundamental questions about the electrical, magnetic and optical properties of new semiconducting materials and investigating the design and fabrication of new optoelectronic devices. The School has extensive facilities for building and investigating devices made from these new materials. The most spectacular results come from ultra-thin sandwich structures. The novel properties of these devices are being exploited in the design of lasers and detectors.

For researchers and students of astronomy, the School offers modern astronomical laboratories with optical, radio and solar telescopes. The University’s Astrophysics Research Group and the Astronomy Instrumentation Research Group are two of the most vigorous in the UK. Members of the groups regularly use the three main British observatories in Hawaii, the Canary Islands and Australia, and they also use the Hubble Space Telescope and other space observatories. There is also an active theory group that uses computers to investigate the physics of stars and galaxies, and a group developing techniques for detecting gravitational waves, a prediction of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity.

Cardiff University
Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities and is a member of the Russell Group of the UK’s most research intensive universities. Among its academic staff are two Nobel Laureates, including the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine, Professor Sir Martin Evans.

Founded by Royal Charter in 1883, today the University combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University’s breadth of expertise in research and research-led teaching encompasses: the humanities; the natural, physical, health, life and social sciences; engineering and technology; preparation for a wide range of professions; and a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning.

PULSE@Parkes is an innovative project that provides high school students the opportunity to control the famous Parkes radio telescope. Students observe pulsars under the guidance of professional astronomers.

The data obtained can be analysed to try and determine a number of properties of the pulsars, the post-supernova remnants of dead stars. The results feed into a growing database used by professional astronomers. Students may discover a new pulsar or help determine the distance to existing pulsars. They help monitor them and identify unusual ones or detect sudden glitches in their rotation. Through participating in this project students meet professional astronomers, learn how to control a state-of-the-art telescope, experience some real science and share their work with students from other schools.

The data collected will also used by astronomers for ongoing research. Astronomers from the CSIRO Australia Telescope National Facility (ATNF) use the data to track the evolution of the pulsars over many years, to test Einstein's theory of gravity and hopefully find gravitational waves.

PULSE@Parkes is funded by CSIRO Australia Telescope National Facility, and more information can be found on their website

Mr Chris North
School of Physics and Astronomy
Cardiff University
Tel: 029 20 870 537