Grant: MIT Radio Society Radome Renewal

Grant Date: May 31, 2021
Amount: $1,620,000

The MIT Radio Society will be restorating its iconic large radome and 18-foot dish to enable current and future amateur radio, education, and research projects. Due to building renovations, the facility was slated for removal, until support from ARDC and other donors made it possible to repair and retain it.

About The MIT Radio Society

The MIT Radio Society is the nation’s oldest continuously-operating college radio club with a 112 year history and a flourishing, vital membership. Student interest in RF engineering, telecommunications, and radio science is strong, and the club supports both experimental and traditional radio projects. In addition to their 30+ regular members, they’ve attracted an audience from across the nation with an annual lecture series (provided on YouTube) that we’ve hosted in recent years. The club participates actively in the amateur radio community through multiple activities including contesting, Field Day, fox hunts, and our monthly tech flea market known as Swapfest (pre-COVID). They also operate a repeater that covers the greater Boston area, used for both casual conversations and emergency communications for large public events such as the Boston Marathon. Finally, they administer amateur radio licensing exams through the W5YI VEC, and have been a pioneer in offering remote exams during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the start of the pandemic they’ve tested over 500 applicants, performing 1.2% of all testing in the US since remote testing began.

About The Radome Renewal

The large radome is not only an iconic part of Cambridge’s skyline, but also protects a dish that is an active scientific instrument used by both the MIT Radio Society and the Physics Junior Laboratory course (J-Lab). For the Radio Society, the system provides an unparalleled platform for student direct access to experiments with radio astronomy, control theory, digital signal processing, weak signal work, and microwave communications.

MIT commissioned two radomes in the late 1960s under the direction of Pauline Austin for MIT’s weather radar research program. They were once the research prototype for the NEXRAD tropospheric radar system and were used for cutting-edge research that led to the ubiquitous use of radar systems for weather forecasting, life safety, and severe weather warning. As time moved on, the dishes fell out of use for weather radar research, and accordingly the club has adapted them for microwave experiments over the past two decades. In particular, the large 18 ft dish is currently used for Earth-Moon-Earth (EME) communication and contesting as well as radio astronomy. The Radio Society also has active plans to use these assets in support of CubeSat mission telemetry in low Earth orbit along with a large number of future experiments and projects.

In 2020, the radome/antenna system proved its value as a remote learning facility in the face of the sudden COVID-19 pandemic. With the support of MIT Radio Society members, it enabled remote radio astronomy experiments for the Physics Junior Laboratory. Undergraduate students used the dish to map 21cm hydrogen emissions from gas in the Milky Way galaxy. According to Dr. Sean Robinson (Associate Director of Junior Lab), “The technical capabilities of the Radio Society’s big radome, coupled with its accessibility for MIT’s academic program, make it a uniquely valuable instrument for all manner of radio work. It was a critical element in our lab’s COVID-19 response, allowing time for student lab experiences that otherwise would have been lost.” There are also valuable opportunities to link the dish on Building 54 with other radio dishes on and off campus to form an interferometric radio array, as well as opportunities for student design and hands-on development of a modern control system for the dish.

The requested ARDC funding will provide the MIT Radio Society with resources for:

  • Retention of the original rotor (SCR-584) and dish
  • Purchase and installation of a new fiberglass radome
  • Repairs and replacement of steelwork on the pedestal (required for safety/longevity)
  • Electrical and fiber routing
  • All additional construction and design costs related to the above

This grant will enable education and research opportunities for new generations of MIT students by preserving and restoring the big dish. In particular, the 18 foot big dish will have a new radome, repaired/refurbished steel substructure, and new infrastructure installed to carry it through the next 50 years. With this renewal, MIT will have a best-in-class instrument for ongoing education and research users, located in the heart of MIT’s campus and therefore easily accessible for hands-on experiential learning.

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