Smiley Radio Telescope

Smiley Radio Telescope

Just about everybody is familiar with optical astronomy, astronomy that uses light. Anytime you go out and look up at the Moon, planets, stars, the Milky Way, etc., you are participating in optical astronomy.

But in 1931 it was discovered that in addition to producing or reflecting light, many objects in the sky also give off radio waves. The science of radio astronomy was born! Research in radio astronomy is undertaken with radio telescopes, usually large dishes that gather in radio energy and send it to processing equipment to be analyzed. PARI has several of these radio telescopes including two that are 26 meters in diameter and one with a diameter of 12.2 meters. Then there is Smiley . . .

Smiley and one of PARI’s 26m (85-foot) radio telescopes

The Smiley Radio Telescope is both an instrument and a valuable educational program. This 4.6m radio telescope was decorated with a smiley face in the days before PARI was established at the formerly named Rosman Satellite Tracking Station. (During the Cold War it was a “friendly wave” to Soviet satellites orbiting overhead.) Smiley remains a symbol of PARI and a resource for students and adults to conduct authentic radio astronomy observations online from their classroom or other venue.

Smiley User’s Guidesheet – To gain access to Smiley, teachers or other individuals age 18+ undergo a 1-hour training on the remote use of Smiley and receive valuable guidance in the use of available laboratory exercises for classroom or individual use. The Smiley User’s Guidesheet is available in PDF format for printing. This document outlines for the Smiley researcher the procedures to use Smiley.

Introduction to Radio Astronomy – PARI staff has developed a presentation on radio astronomy + to help Smiley users learn about radio astronomy and how it differs from the better known optical astronomy. Introduction to Radio Astronomy can also be used by teachers to give students the basic knowledge they need to understand more about Smiley itself and what it can do for the researcher.

Smiley Labs – Four labs are available in formats for both teachers and students.

  • Lab 1. What’s Between the Stars? (educator) (student)
    Students are familiar with the visible night sky. The goal of this module is to expand their vision of the night sky. The introduction to the lab includes a description of visible images of the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, or the Orion Nebula. The students will download the images, then use Smiley to map 21cm emissions from either the center of the Milky Way or Orion. Results will be a comparison of the visible and radio maps, and a discussion of the difference.
  • Lab 2. Doppler Effect (educator) (student)
    The frequency of radio waves emitted by a moving object changes (the Doppler Effect). If the object is moving towards us the frequency becomes higher. If it is moving away, the frequency is lowered and we say the object is redshifted. The goal of this module is to have the students observe the Doppler Effect. The students will measure the 1420 MHz frequency (21-cm wavelength) shift for several objects.
  • Lab 3. Mapping Radio Sources (educator) (student)
    The goal of this module is to develop mapping and graphing skills, which are important in scientific inquiry. After an introduction to the concept of contour maps, students will observe a radio source (e.g., Orion Nebula). They will sample the brightness of the source at regular spatial intervals over the area of the object. Without the use of a computer, the students will work together plotting the intensities by hand, developing a contour map. Results and discussion center on the contour map that was produced and how well it represents the actual object.
  • Lab 4. Radio Waves from the Galaxy (educator) (student)
    We can see evidence of dust in the galaxy because our view of the Milky Way is patchy and has gaps caused by the dust obscuring our view. This lab demonstrates that the Milky Way also contains gas. Students use Smiley to prove the Milky Way Galaxy emits radio waves from hydrogen gas. Students point Smiley to different parts of the sky to begin exploring the structure of the Milky Way Galaxy.

Radio Source Catalog – Smiley looks at a sky full of fascinating objects that are “bright” in the radio section of the electromagnetic spectrum but may or may not be detectable in visible light. This Radio Source Catalog presents information on the major radio sources Smiley is capable of detecting.


Education and Support

Smiley is in use in schools (both local and nationwide) as an inquiry-based, real-time, hands-on astronomy tool and enhancement to North Carolina and national science standards. To date, Smiley has been used by thousands of students in dozens of schools.

The program has been supported over the years by Duke Energy, an American Institute of Physics Meggers Project Award, the Space Telescope Science Institute IDEAS program, the American Astronomical Society, the National Science Foundation and the Perry N. Rudnick Fund.