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Tuning in the Sounds of Space
04.02.07
 
Who are NASA's Space Science Explorers?

Who are NASA's Space Science Explorers? The scientist studying black holes in distant galaxies. And the engineer working on robotic machines bound for space. But also the teacher explaining the mysteries of the cosmos. And the student wondering if there is life beyond Earth. All of these people are Space Science Explorers. They are all linked by their quest to explore our solar system and universe. This monthly series will introduce you to NASA Space Science Explorers, young and old, with many backgrounds and interests.

Ocean waves crashing on a beach. Pebbles landing on a tin roof. A quiet hiss.

As far as we know, sandy beaches, tin roofs and hissing snakes don't exist away from Earth. Yet, these are the kinds of noises heard by scientists who study radio signals coming from space. These scientists are called radio astronomers. They use special telescopes to convert radio waves to sound.

Wanda Diaz helps a student read a book that is written in Braille
The sounds are music to the ears of Wanda Diaz. She is a graduate student at the University of Puerto Rico. She studies radio astronomy. She also happens to be blind.

Image to right: Wanda Diaz teaches an astronomy class for blind students at the University of Puerto Rico. Credit: Wanda Diaz

Diaz has not let being blind interfere with her passion for radio astronomy. Nor has it prevented her from sharing that passion with students younger than she is. Radio JOVE has made it possible for her to research and teach astronomy. Radio JOVE is a project run by NASA.

The Radio JOVE kit includes all the parts needed to make a radio telescope. The two main parts are an antenna and receiver. The antenna picks up the powerful bursts of radio signals that the sun and Jupiter create. Radio signals are invisible waves of energy. The receiver converts the signals into audio that sounds like radio static.

Going a step further, Diaz helps test software invented by NASA researchers. The software maps the radio data to more familiar sounds, like the human voice or musical instruments. For instance, users can study the data by changing the volume or the pitch.

Many astronomers both look at and listen to data. They do so because the human ear is good at recognizing patterns the eye might miss. But for those without sight, the ability to listen to data is even more important.

A metal box with two dials on the front
It's easy to get discouraged not being able to see, Diaz said. But you soon discover the importance of your other senses, like touch and hearing. "Then you realize that you're finding hidden patterns" in the data.

Image to left: This receiver is part of the Radio JOVE kit. Credit: NASA

Diaz first became interested in radio astronomy six years ago. She was earning her college degree in physics. She started to lose her sight because of diabetes. She worried about how her career would be affected. But things fell into place when she found out that she could listen to radio signals and analyze them.

'I was asking myself, 'How could I be a physicist and how could I do astronomy when I'm losing my sight?'" Diaz said. "Then, I heard about Radio JOVE and I said, 'OK, this is the way to go.'"

Jim Thieman, a radio astronomer at NASA, helped start the Radio JOVE project in 1998. Since then, more than 800 kits have been sold. The kits are available online for $155. Data collected can be used for various science projects. Students can even share their data with other scientists.

At a school in Puerto Rico, Diaz is helping seventh-graders detect meteors with Radio JOVE. As the meteors pass through Earth's upper atmosphere, they leave behind a trail of charged air particles. The particles reflect radio signals, such as those from radio and TV stations. The reflected signals can be picked up by radio telescopes.

  Related Resources
+ Previous Space Science Explorers articles

+ Radio JOVE
Diaz has also helped students at four other schools build Radio JOVE telescopes. She began visiting schools more than a year ago to reach out to students. During this time she has seen their interest in radio astronomy increase. She says it's fun for students to build their own radio telescopes and then collect data with them.

"They listen to the data, and have lots of fun doing it," she said.

Like many students, Diaz has had to overcome a challenge. She didn't let being blind stop her from becoming a scientist. Diaz tells students not to give up on their dreams, no matter the difficulties they may face.

"I tell them that the only obstacle between them and their dreams is themselves," Diaz said. "Nothing is impossible."

 
 
Prachi Patel, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies

Adapted for grades 5-8 audience by Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies