Radio Telescopes and Quantum Computers: Siemens Regional Finalist Projects

by Sophia Deng and Xinyi Zhou

Magnet seniors Roger Curley, Dalton Wu and Jennifer Wang were named Regional Finalists in the 2009 Siemens Competition.  Wu and Curley were partners in a project related to the correction of atmospheric image distortions for astronomy.  Wang worked with a partner from Virginia on a project related to ion traps for quantum computing.  In an interesting coincidence, both groups worked in the same building at the University of Maryland,
the Computer and Space Sciences Building. (read more about their experiences at the Siemens Regional Finals)

Correcting Atmospheric Distortions

Dalton Wu and Roger Curley worked together on a project entitled "Determining Conditions in which Paired Antennas Can Be Used to Correct Atmospheric Image Distortion at Millimeter Wavelengths." 
They worked under Dr. Marc Pound, Dr. Peter Teuben, and Ashley Zauderer. Although Wu and Curley would become an effective team, their partnership was was more last-minute than fixed at the get-go. When former SRP teacher Susan Ragan informed Curley that Wu's lab had an opening, Curley was on board. Curley describes their teamwork as "pretty good." "We could [look at] each other's code, so that was really good," Curley notes. Having company also meant never eating "lunch solo," Curley remarks.

The antennas they studied are radio telescopes that can observe astronomical sources of radio waves, whose resolution is dependent upon the diameter of the telescope. However, building telescopes with higher and higher resolutions required antennae of an impractical size, so astronomers now use arrays of telescopes, such as the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy (CARMA).

When using such an array, however, the radio waves in front of each antenna are affected by different parts of the atmosphere, so each resulting image will have different distortions that must be fixed before the images are spliced together. The current system for doing so is called the Paired Antenna Calibration System (PACS), but it requires significant resources without consistently providing useful corrections. Wu and Curley wrote a series of programs to investigate the cases in which PACS was ineffective or effective. Their results will help researchers only use PACS when it will provide useful corrections, and thus save money and resources.

Parabolic Ion Traps

Jennifer Wang, the other Regional Finalist from Blair, also worked in a group project. Instead of working with a partner from Blair, she worked with junior Grace Young from The Potomac School in McLean, Va.  Their project was entitled "Validation of Parabolic Ion Trap Geometries for Application within Quantum Computing" and dealt with methods for incorporating parabolic reflectors into particle traps, which could have implications for large-scale quantum computing networks. They worked under Professor Christopher R. Monroe.

A working quantum computer is able to perform many calculations that normal computers cannot. While a conventional computer operates in 1s and 0s - on and off - a quantum computer may be on and off at the same time in a probabilistic state.  This gives quantum computers some capabilities beyond conventional computers that researchers are eager to explore.  As one example, conventional computers can easily multiply two numbers but struggle to undo the process. This fact is the basis for many encryption algorithms. Quantum computers, however, would be able to easily undo multiplication, breaking several modern encryption techniques.

One potential way to represent the mechanisms of a quantum computer is to trap ions and measure the resulting light output in a method called trapped ion quantum computing (TIQC). However, this process has not been very efficient. Wang and Young worked on increasing that efficiency by trapping ions at the focus of a parabolic reflector, which enhances quantum network performance significantly. They tested three trap designs and experimentally validated the efficacy of the parabolic reflector process.  Wang and Young thus cleared a significant obstacle to quantum computing and developed a tool to predict development of ion traps using parabolic geometries.