Summer skies

Written by: 
Randena Hulstrand

UNT alumni improve space travel, explore new technologies and keep the allure of the
universe alive

William K. Dwyer (’68, ’73 M.S.) has been curious about the universe since he was a boy growing up in Azle. He followed space discoveries, satellite launches and rocket technology over the years. And then, as a master’s student in the early 1970s, he signed up for one of North Texas’ first astronomy summer labs at the old missile base northeast of Denton.

“Why did a math and physics graduate student take a freshman astronomy class?” Dwyer asks. “The midnight adventures looking at the galaxies through a 16-inch telescope were just for fun. That’s the only reason.”

Dwyer says this fascination, powered by his rigorous North Texas education, prepared him for an engineering career with NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. He is the system manager for the command and data handling system computer hardware aboard the International Space Station. With the station assembly now complete, he’s responsible for 51 general purpose computer systems controlling everything from life support to guidance and navigation, from electrical power to payload control.

“The math and physics classes were designed to make us learn to think, challenge and prove by accepting only what could be shown to be true,” Dwyer says. “That is the essence of good engineering, and in my job, human lives are in the balance.”

Stellar facilities

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For decades, UNT operated an observatory at the Nike missile base. But with the growth of the astronomy program and increased light pollution in north Denton, the university built the Rafes Urban Astronomy Center (RUAC) in 2007 near the Denton Municipal Airport on land donated by former UNT vice president of administrative affairs Richard Rafes (’90 Ph.D.) and his wife, Tommye (’85, ’04 M.Ed.).

“Astronomy is magic. People young and old alike love it, so we wanted a facility where students and the community could learn about the sky simultaneously,” says Ron DiIulio, director of UNT’s planetarium and astronomy lab program in the Department of Physics and a former North Texas student himself.  DiIulio and Preston Starr, manager of UNT observatories, discovered pieces of a meteor that was seen streaking across the Texas sky in 2009.

Today, RUAC oversees the lab portion of UNT’s astronomy courses. The university has one of the largest enrollments in the nation for introductory astronomy classes that offer multiple laboratory components — a planetarium, telescopes and a research-grade observatory for advanced research. RUAC accommodates about 3,400 students, many of them non-science majors, and more than 38,000 visitors annually.

Astronomy for non-science majors, DiIulio says, is important because it teaches the scientific method and builds students’ reasoning abilities — skills applicable to other areas of their lives.

“Our goal is to inspire students to go into the sciences and show them that physics doesn’t have to be intimidating,” he says.

In addition to academic study with labs and lectures, RUAC provides public outreach for groups at informal free star parties the first Saturday of each month, and also for private groups, including guided Sky Theater planetarium showings.

Twelve-year-old Jack Kresky, a Boy Scout from Southlake, recently caught a glimpse of Saturn’s rings through his first telescope viewing during a UNT star party with troop members. His peek into the sky, he says, made him think about the wonders of the universe and his future place in it.

“I want to be an astronaut,” he says, “and the first man on Mars.”

Out of this world

This year, the program held its first upper-level class in which students began studying exoplanets — planets beyond our solar system orbiting stars other than the sun — on five research telescopes at UNT’s Monroe Robotic Observatory near Gainesville. The observatory sits on 13.2 acres donated by rancher and former student John David Monroe.

Students in Denton led by Ohad Shemmer, astrophysicist and associate professor of physics, observe live feeds via the Internet, prime technology for collaborative opportunities around the world. UNT trains its telescopes on specific points in the sky, creating exoplanet transit data for researchers at Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network in Santa Barbara, Calif., and Tel Aviv University in Israel.

“UNT is helping shine light on one of astronomy’s newest research areas,” Shemmer says, adding that the first
exoplanet was not located until two decades ago and to date more than 400 have been discovered. “We’re formally looking at other worlds.”

And through a relationship with the Noble Planetarium in the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, a new clamshell observatory at RUAC will house a unique mount holding four telescopes to look at the sun’s different layers. Real-time images will be shared with museum-goers in Fort Worth and students in RUAC labs via the Internet.

“The adventures and experiences that young people encounter when studying the unknown is what makes it work for me,” DiIulio says. “Visitors return with their little ones — our future students and astronomers.”


Universe listening

Cynthia Herod Lichtman (’81) and her husband recently moved their international radio astronomy supply company, Radio Astronomy Supplies, from Florida to near Sanger. That’s just northwest of where she took astronomy as a business student at the old missile base in 1978.

“A love for astronomy was one of the things we had in common,” she says of her husband, Jeffrey, who supplies research radio telescopes, trains researchers and assists universities around the world. He established the Society of Amateur Radio Astronomers in 1981. Serendipitously, the couple stumbled on the RUAC facilities when looking for land to relocate their company and have helped connect the center’s first radio telescope, which observes the universe at radio wavelengths, invisible to human eyes.

“It’s fantastic to be near UNT again,” Cynthia says. “We love the intellectual stimulus, giving hands-on help and being able to assist the physics department.”

The radio dish captures energy waves of various frequencies from celestial objects — from pulsars and black holes to Jupiter and quasars — and relays the signals to the radio telescope receiver.

“Who knows? It is always in studying the unknown that the new technology of tomorrow is discovered,” says Ryan Lane, a physics graduate student who’s been collecting data from the radio telescope.

“While the practical applications aren’t always apparent immediately in the lifetime of those who discovered them — such as with observations from Newton, Galileo and Copernicus — discoveries lead to other discoveries,” he says.


Passing on culture

In fulfilling a science requirement with an astronomy class, music major Rachel Thompson (’04, ’07 M.Ed.) discovered a passion for the sky.

“Going to class was entering a world outside our own, but seeing Jupiter through a telescope at the lab was phenomenal,” she says. “I was hooked.”

She added physics as a second major and says it  “helped me think with another hemisphere of my brain.”

After the class, Thompson’s husband gave her a telescope and she took a job at RUAC, knowing she wanted to teach at a planetarium. A master’s in education later, she is the planetarium educator at the Noble Planetarium in Fort Worth, teaching astronomy to students age 3 through high school.

Thompson reminds visitors of important technologies here today because of the space program, such as microwaves, cell phones and medical advances like breast cancer detection. And she’s dedicated to cultivating amateur astronomers because she says they drive astronomy with contributions to scientific knowledge through star watching, asteroid tracking and comet discoveries. They’re also examples of how the power of story expands the knowledge of humanity.

“Knowledge about constellations has passed from generation to generation,” she says. “And by handing down astronomy to our children, we’re passing on our human culture.”

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