Saturday, March 19, 2011

Visit to Astron

Last Thursday, a bunch of us from our Radio Astronomy class went for a field trip to ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy. They focus on innovations in Radio Astronomy -- new receiver materials, new circuit boards, etc.

Their most recent big project has been LOFAR, LOw Frequency ARray, a new receiver technique with sensitivities for astronomical observations at radio frequencies below 250 MHz. In short, there's a whole unexplored region of our universe we call the "dark ages" and LOFAR's main job is to tell us more about this era, and perhaps unlock the deep dark secrets of our universe.

The entire day was quite rather inspiring.

We met at Leiden Centraal and waited for the whole group to gather.

First I was a bit taken aback to see the difference in trip-buses between Mumbai and Netherlands. In trip buses at home you always have people singing and screaming and walking about and passing food, you know. But this bus was different -- there was an announcement to put on seat belts and then that was it -- everyone put on their seat belts and slinked in thier seats. Hmm. A bit difficult for me to do so I didn't. On the way, Jo, Carla (both from Portugal) and I were waving at different trucks -- you could make out the country the truck is from, from its name plate. The Germans and Swedes didn't wave back -- and a Portuguese fella did! This really makes me think more about the effect of the sun on human moods. If you carefully look at every country in the tropical belt vs. countries in the north, you'd immediately pick up on what I'm saying. There are pretty significant differences even between the north and south of Holland. It's not that the Dutch aren't chilled out. They are chilled out, but they are equally wound up.

We first reached the Westerbork radio telescope. Westerbork was also a concentration camp back in the day, so that whole angle really depressed me. The 14 telescopes that make up the array were really quite a sight.

We were three groups in all visiting the telescope that day: Master students, Bachelor students, and LAPTOP students (top high school students). Mike Garrette, the director of ASTRON and our Radio Astronomy professor, showed us around. We visited the control room, correlators, receiver unit maintenance room, the telescopes, and a room where they were farming receiver arrays of a different technology to replace the current receiver units.

After lunch, we set off to visit the ASTRON headquarters and the Dwingeloo Radio Observatory, which was built in 1956, and was the biggest radio telescope at that time (for about 6 months until Jodrell Bank came along to eat it up).

The ASTRON HQ was simply fascinating. The building is very well designed and its humble exterior blends in perfectly with the environment.

The facilities at ASTRON are pretty cutting edge. Some of the most fascinating areas for me were the aperture synthesis test room, the old tapes used to record astronomical data (@1 Gbps), and the design of the new receivers (lotus flower shape to ensure maximum absorption or maximum reflection).

After our tour in the ASTRON building, we hopped over to the old telescope, which is is currently run by a pro-am astro group.

The nice folk there were awesome. We heard the regular sound of a pulsar and took a hydrogen line reading from CasA, the youngest supernova remnant in the Milky Way, and I got a souvenir:

To round up the wonderful day, we had some wonderful snacks and got back into the bus down to dear Leiden, where I chatted and chatted and chatted with dear lovely Ainil.