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Capstone project gives York College seniors a celestial experience

November 15, 2018
Engineering and Computer Science develop radio telescope for capstone project.

A good senior project aims to cap off everything a student has learned in his or her college career and elevate it a little higher. The students taking part in York College of Pennsylvania’s Radio Telescope Capstone and Senior Design Project are literally shooting for the stars with theirs.

Nineteen students are working in collaboration with the York County Astronomical Society and the York County Park System to develop a 15-foot auto-locating and auto-tracking remote-control telescope, which will be installed at John Rudy Park.

This is the first project that integrates both Computer Science Senior Design with Engineering Capstone, says Don Hake, instructor in computer science, who is heading the project.

“It’s a really big project for us,” he says. “It crosses all of our Engineering and Computer Science disciplines, and we’ve never really tackled anything like this before. This is real-world experience.”

And more so, the students are learning as they go, creating something new from start to finish.

“You never actually know what you’re doing until you’ve done it,” Don adds.

The project is a bit daunting, even in name, much less the execution. So, how exactly do you design a radio telescope?

Some of the students put it into less intimidating terms:

‘Think of it as a TV antenna’

“A radio telescope is completely different than any other telescope,” says student Felix Diaz. “Think of it as a TV antenna. It's not like we can see our favorite TV shows flying through the sky into people’s homes. Those are radio signals that are being sent then turned into something that we can understand.”

The stars and planets in space are always releasing very similar signals that allow us to watch them and learn about them, he says.

“I create the TV and the remote, so to speak,” Felix says. “I also created a virtual reality simulation that allows people to experience the telescope in a very immersive setting without having to even be near it. It is almost like I'm putting people into a dream where they can touch, move, and play with the radio telescope and learn everything they can!”

Beyond the human eye

“As the radio telescope tracks an object of interest, the system integrates and samples the received signal,” says student Kira Zadrejko.

It then uses those samples to create a visualization of the object’s hydrogen emissions, she says.

“Radio telescopes provide an image of objects in a way that cannot normally be seen by the human eye,” Kira says. “My part in the project as an electrical engineer is to pick out and install the sensors that will track and control the telescope's moments.”

Learning about themselves

In the midst of learning how to build the telescope and the real-world experience of working with a client, the students have also learned something about themselves.

“In a way, it is also a time machine. The vast distance of the cosmos means we see things as they were and not as they are,” says William “Billy” Amtmann, who also worked on the project.

“I have been curious and thrilled about outer space since I was in fourth grade,” he says. “I learned I can do what I am truly passionate about, explore. And even more, I’m now capable of making exploration possible with an incredible team of people.”

Developing confidence

“I have become pretty decent with being able to teach people about concepts of software architecture,” says student Cody Spath.

Over the summer, he worked on an example architecture for what the software would look like and worked extensively on documenting what different parts of the application were used for and why. He also worked on a knowledge base to help the other students working on the web application to get up to speed on tools and technologies that they may not have heard of or had any experience in.

“I think through this,” he says, “I also developed a confidence in my own abilities, which is a really great feeling!”

‘How far we have come’

Kira, the project’s electrical engineer, says she learned communication is key.

“With this project spanning so many engineering disciplines, it is impossible for one engineer to learn everything needed to complete this massive undertaking in such a short time,” she says. “I tend to like to keep to myself when researching new topics, and once I feel confident in my knowledge I can share with others, but I learned quickly that my norm was not going to work for the capstone project.”

For this project, she says, everyone had to be actively sharing what they were learning with the rest of the team to make any headway.

“We had a large learning curve from the very beginning,” Kira says, “but working together we were able to learn a lot and I am really proud of how far we have come.”

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