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Penn Physics Professor James Aguirre worked with high school students from across the country to convert an old satellite dish into a radio telescope. | Courtesy of José Francisco Salgado/Creative Commons

One Penn faculty member is taking a piece of the past and creating it into something brand new. 

This past summer, Penn Physics professor James Aguirre worked with high school students from across the country to transform an old satellite dish on top of The Enterprise Center in West Philadelphia into a fully functioning radio telescope as part of Penn's Experimental Physics Research Academy. In taking on this project, Aguirre hoped to empower students who were interested in going above and beyond in science to learn a new part of the field.

After receiving a grant from the National Science Foundation last May to build the telescope as a teaching tool, Aguirre began working on the project. He decided to create a radio telescope because "they are not bothered by the sun being out, and they're little bothered by the rain and cloud," Aguirre said. 

The students who attended the Experimental Physics Research Academy first learned about radio astronomy through home satellite dishes and then used this knowledge to assist Aguirre in constructing receivers for the telescope. 

The radio telescope uses infrared cameras, and with them, users can see all the man-made radio waves in Philadelphia, Aguirre said. Although the telescope is not as dramatic as a regular telescope, users can still see the sun, he added.

The radio telescope currently sits atop The Enterprise Center, a nonprofit focused on connecting minorities with entrepreneurial opportunities located in West Philadelphia. The dish that was used as a base to create the telescope has an interesting history. 

Back in the 1950s, the building on top of which the dish stands, which is now The Enterprise Center, was built for television broadcasting. WHYY ("Wider Horizons for You and Yours") TV began broadcasting during this decade and moved its TV and FM studios to the center at 46th and Market streets in 1957, according to Philadelphia Radio Archives.

The center was created by David Thornburgh and Larry Bell, two leaders from the Wharton Small Business Development Center with a mission "to cultivate and invest in minority entrepreneurs to inspire working together for economic growth in communities," its website says. The center began at 4601 Market Street and expanded in the upcoming decades.

Although the radio telescope is already created and that part of the learning experience is over for students, Aguirre is now teaching other students how to use the telescope. He partnered up with the Boys' Latin of Philadelphia Charter School  and tied it into their AP Physics curriculum. 

Now, the students are working on "a little mini version" of the telescope, Aguirre said. 

Looking toward the future, Aguirre has further ideas on how the telescope can be utilized for further learning. For example, he believes students at Penn could work on it, too — perhaps as part of one of the classes he teaches, "Astronomical Techniques." 

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