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Small instruments, big observations

Green Bank resident Glen Langston stands among three of the four small telescopes he constructed and is using in his backyard to map the Milky Way. The horns have foam insulation lids to keep out rain and snow, but are transparent to allow radiowaves to be observed. Photo courtesy of Glen Langston

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

The Green Bank Observatory is known for its campus of large radio telescopes, which are used by astronomers around the world to study the universe and all within it. 

Just down the road from the world famous Green Bank Telescope and its friends, is the home of Glen Langston and Katherine LaFleur, where four small homemade telescopes are mapping the universe, as well.

Langston began making the small telescopes four years ago and has developed an educational program for middle and high school students using the instruments.

“I used to work for the observatory, but I now work for the National Science Foundation, in Alexandria, Virginia,” he said. “I organize reviews of proposals on the topic of the Milky Way. Very few people know about the Milky Way, and I thought I would try to do something that kids could do. You can basically discover the Milky Way in your backyard day or night with these things.”

Langston is also the lead program officer for the education outreach efforts within astronomy for the NSF and has started working with high school teachers around the country to implement the telescopes in classroom projects.

“Of course – astronomy – we think is sort of the most fun thing you could ever want to do, but it also is a motivator and a tool for learning about all kinds of other technologies, like software and electronics,” he said. “It goes all the way into leadership, data management and accounting because it’s basically like logging your observations and making sense of them and keeping a calendar so you know what you’ve done and what you haven’t done.”

Langston has worked with SueAnn Heatherly and Sophie St. Georges in the education department at the GBO, as well as West Virginia University’s Kevin Bandura – assistant professor in the department of computer science and electrical engineering and adjunct assistant professor in the department of physics and astronomy.

Right now, Langston is using the four telescopes in his backyard to map the Milky Way, which, with the cluster, will take a week. The project can also be completed with one telescope in a month.

“I’m making a map of the sky this week,” he said. “I’m trying to write a paper for an astronomical journal on what you can do with this kind of telescope, which is obviously limited compared to what you can do with the GBT.”

While the GBT is much more sensitive and can discover more parts of the universe, it is impossible for an individual to build one of that size in their backyard. The home astronomy telescope is much easier to build and use.

“You can build the whole telescope system for about five hundred dollars,” Langston said. “The funnel is about four feet tall and thirty-two inches wide at the top and six inches wide at the bottom. Basically, the radio waves fall into what is, essentially a stovepipe, when you point it at the sky. It’s configured in a way that makes it very sensitive to radio waves from neutral hydrogen.

“The signal is whopping strong, even with these little telescopes,” he continued. “The Milky Way is detectable in seconds with it. You make maps of the sky by scanning around, and if you only have one telescope, that takes about a month. If you have four telescopes, it takes about a week.”

Langston said he hopes that the schools using the telescopes – and those interested in using them – will be inspired to continue searching and creating new projects after mapping the Milky Way.

“We have a lot of dreams, as you might expect,” he said. “One is, just build something – anything that scientists can use. That’s a minimum. Then you very quickly discover the Milky Way, and you immediately learn about the Earth’s motion around the sun and the sun’s motion around the Milky Way with these first observations. You’re measuring very high velocities. It’s five hundred thousand miles an hour – that’s how fast we’re moving around the Milky Way.

“We actually hope to do a real science project with them,” he continued. “That is still in development. There’s a whole other aspect of physics that you can do with them, which is cosmic rays. Cosmic rays are always hitting the Earth’s atmosphere, non-stop, day and night – but the strongest ones make very strong, very short radio flashes that you can also see with these radio telescopes.”

Eventually, Langston hopes that these telescopes will be used everywhere by students and individuals interested in astronomy and physics. 

“The main thing I’ve been working on is the science project,” he said. “My goal would be to have a nationwide or worldwide group of people doing any particular science project that they want to do. I’m putting forward this particular one –cosmic rays – because I know it’s feasible. We’re just giving them the tools that they can use to make discoveries.”

When the projects are ready for schools to use in their classrooms, Langston said the first part of the project for the students is to build the telescopes.

“The intention is to let the students build it themselves, or with the teacher’s help,” he said. “There are several designs for the small telescopes, including one that can be found on the West Virginia University Radio Astronomy Instrumentation Lab site at wvurail.org

“The West Virginia University group uses foam insulation board for the biggest part of it, and they do have a pretty good design,” Langston said. “I think that’s what people mostly go to. I don’t have those here. I have my own design, and it’s a little bigger, and it’s more weather tolerant. Mine have been outside for four years now.

“Snow is a problem in your gigantic funnel,” he continued. “You don’t want snow and leaves and bugs in there, so mine have covers on them to keep the snow out. The cover is radio transparent so you can observe all the time. I would say they are not without repair issues, but I think they can last longer than your typical interest does.”

During the Covid-19 pandemic, teachers have had a difficult time meeting with students and doing projects like the small telescopes, but Langston said if the students had materials to make the telescopes at home, they would be able to see each other’s data online.

“The teachers have the problem that they can’t be directly involved with their students,” Langston said. “The nice thing about the way these particular computers are configured, you can log-in from anywhere and see what the telescope is doing, so it’s very shareable.

“It’s actually very convenient that way. That’s a feature of the free software that comes with the raspberry pie [computer]. If you know the internet address and the password, you can log-in to it. That way, we can work together very well in this COVID era.”

Langston added that other schools could login and see the information to compare to their own projects if they had the shared login information.

Langston hopes to see the telescope projects grow to be international and help everyone who has an interest in astronomy to at least be a backyard astronomer.

“Cooperative work worldwide is possible,” he said. “We’ve actually had a few people – a person in Belgium and a person in South America – express an interest in it. 

“There are about a dozen high school teachers in the country who are very active in this area right now, and that’s a good start,” he continued. “We’d like it to be bigger.”

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