Radar inspires young astronomers

  • 2001-08-02
  • Rita Bubina
RIGA - From June 16 to 28, the University of Ventspils housed around 50 young students and lecturers from an unusual summer school: Radio Universe 2001.

Though there have been several other summer schools held in Latvia this year, this is the first one dedicated to radio astronomy. Two years ago a similar summer school was held in Lithuania.

The organizer of the school is Dainis Dravins, a famous Swedish astronomer of Latvian origin. The project was financed by the Nordic Academy of Advanced Study.

"Riga or Stockholm is not the right place for summer schools. The town has to be small and offer the students and lecturers the possibility to spend some time together after lectures. Ventspils was ideal," said Dravins.

Around 20 lecturers from Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Germany and other countries spoke on a number of topics.

"The advantage of a summer school is that the students can hear lectures on subjects they wouldn't hear in any university, at least not in this combination," Dravins continued.

There were also two popular science lectures for those interested in radio astronomy and related fields. Professor Jocelyn Bell-Burnell from Great Britain held a lecture on pulsars, supplementing it with demonstrative visuals. Professor Esko Valtaoja from Finland used yogurt, roses, oranges and other things to visualize the evolution of life on earth.

"I think it was nice that the school was two weeks long," said Susanne Huttemeister, a lecturer from Bochum University in Germany. "The students had a lot of time to get to know each other, and there was time for lectures, exercises, and time to go observing. I think there was a great balance between practical work, lectures and socializing."

Ville Saarinen, a lecturer from Helsinki University of Technology added, "The audience was very receptive. It made it worthwhile."

The organizers had received over 50 applications for the summer school from all over Northern Europe. Only 30 were selected. Those selected were from a variety of disciplines, including computer science, physics, and chemistry. Most were graduates with a master's degree or were first-year doctoral students.

"I found it interesting how groups of students with different backgrounds could work together. They interacted and communicated very well," said Huttemeister.

The reasons for participation were different. Some needed the two credits the school would provide, while others were interested simply in coming to Latvia.

The first week of the summer school was meant for lectures, but during the second week the organizers tried to balance that with practical sessions.

The practical sessions were held at the famed telescope Little Star. The telescope is the largest in Northern Europe. This was also one of the reasons why the summer school took place in Ventspils.

"Usually young specialists don't get the chance to work with such a large telescope. Three meters is the most they can get," added Edgars Bervalds, director of the Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Center.

The students worked in groups, made observations of the sun and later analyzed the data they had received. The results were then presented to other students and lecturers at the end of the summer school.

The telescope has a storied history itself. It was built in the 1970s as a top-secret interception center. The 32-meter telescope was just right for intercepting radio signals from Western Europe. Around the telescope there was a completely independent military town housing about 2,000 soldiers and their families.

"We had no idea such a telescope existed. It was an enormous surprise when the Russian army was planning to leave Latvia in 1994 and we were told that there was a telescope like this here," said Bervalds.

Before leaving, the Russian army destroyed all the equipment, cut the electric wires and left no instructions on how the telescope functioned.

Within four years, with the help of Swedish colleagues, the radio telescope was repaired, and now it can fulfill all its duties.

For of the students the work with the telescope was an extraordinary experience. Some even expressed their surprise at seeing that the old machine could really move its antenna.

The telescope is also known for being the only one that has ever inspired a composer to create a symphony. The British composer Michael Omer wrote the piece "Little Star Begins to Sing," which was first presented on Feb. 3.

The development of radio astronomy in Latvia started after World War II. Janis Ikaunieks was the pioneer in the field. He managed to set up an optical telescope in the Baldone region. Later a radio telescope was also set up. Unfortunately, after Latvia regained independence, all the projects were stopped as specialists found more prosperous places to work. Some are now working at the Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Center and form the core of it.

The center is participating in several international projects, but to become a partner in the European sphere of radio telescopes a lot of improvements have to be made.

"With our present level of infrastructure – no water, sewage disposal or a normal place for living – no foreign specialist would come to work in the center," complained Bervalds.

Apart from a lack of air conditioning and a shortage of time for practical exercises, all the students were satisfied with the summer school.

"The school was an important event in the field of radio astronomy in Latvia," said Karlis Berzins, a council member of the Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Center.