York College students building local astronomers new, larger eye on the cosmos

Tina Locurto
York Dispatch

Since Kerry Smith's very first experience in radio astronomy taking observations of radio emissions from Jupiter in 1990, his dreams of exploring the cosmos and teaching others about science only grew. 

Enter York College Professor Don Hake and a 15-foot radio telescope — the foundation for what would become an ongoing project to build a fully functional radio telescope for Smith's organization, the York County Astronomical Society.

"I am the envy of a lot of (amateur astronomers) who would love to have an instrument of this caliber," Smith said. "When it's fully operational and doing what we designed it to do, we're going to be one of the few amateur astronomy clubs that would have this available to the world."

Wyatt Wivell, a senior, works during his capstone class on Tuesday, March 31. Wivell is part of a team of students building a radio telescope from scratch. Tina Locurto photo.

For years, Smith has relied on a radio telescope with a 12-foot dish with limited scopes that can only range north and south.

The new 15-foot dish, however, will be fully maneuverable and have the ability to lock on to a celestial object for tracking for several hours, according to Todd Ullery, the solar system ambassador volunteer for the York County Astronomical Society.

"The larger size makes it more sensitive to the weak signals from space," Ullery said. "The previous telescope would point in a specific height above the southern horizon and collect data in the few minutes it drifts through the field of view."

Radio astronomy is a subfield of astronomy that studies the radio emissions of celestial objects. Collections of the radio energy can be processed to build images — something that people couldn't see with the naked eye, Smith said.

After his first observation in 1990, Smith joined the Society of Amateur Radio Astronomers, where he is still active to this day. Smith also worked at the medical technology manufacturing company Becton Dickson with Hake, which is where the two first met. 

"It just gives us a wider window to look at these objects," Smith added. "That's basically what we're doing with the radio telescope. It's a new set of eyes to look at the cosmos and to better understand."

This digital rendering depicts the new radio telescope being built by York College students for the York County Astronomical Society. Submitted by Todd Ullery

For three years, York College students with a variety of interests, such as computer science and engineering, have worked to design, construct and code the telescope.

The estimated $60,000 to $70,000 in costs was covered via funds provided by York College.

Additional donations came from other organizations, including Becton Dickson, the Society of Amateur Radio Astronomers and the UPS Foundation. Kinsley Construction donated materials and labor for the project.

With guidance from several professors and members of the York County Astronomical Society, students have gained real-world experience and devoted countless hours to a project that the public can use for years to come.

The project is expected to wrap up by the end of the summer of 2022 and will become part of the York County Astronomical Society observatory at John C. Rudy County Park, 400 Mundis Race Road in East Manchester Township. 

"The combination of people we have is what really makes this project possible," said Hake, a computer science instructor at the college.

Creating the new telescope is a capstone project, which is typically designed for senior students to show and apply the skills gained in their college career.

This particular project, however, is open to students in other grade levels — like sophomore David McHugh.

Participating in the project as an independent study, McHugh said he is taking advantage of the opportunity to enhance his computer coding skills.

As part of the control room team, he is tasked with processing commands to translate into a code that the telescope will understand in order for it to move.

For example, in the event of rain or snow, the telescope will need to be coded so that it will move to remove excess precipitation.

"This class has really opened a lot of doors," McHugh said. "I've been on the project for no more than two official months, and I've already seen a number of doors open just for the things that I can do in the future."

While there's still plenty of work to be done, Smith said when the radio telescope is completed he is confident it will be a huge success with residents interested in science.

"It is a dream, and it's unfolding as we speak," Smith said. "There's just so many opportunities there to expand one's perception of the universe."

— Reach Tina Locurto at tlocurto@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @tina_locurto.