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Radio Astronomy?

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Ken Tapping, December 10, 2008

In the sky this week...

> Jupiter and Venus are close together in the Southwest after sunset.

> Saturn rises in the early hours.

> The Moon will be Full on December 12.


For 11 years now part of my job has been to represent the interests of Canadian radio astronomers nationally and internationally as a member of the Canadian Delegation to meetings of the UN's International Telecommunication Union, in Geneva. The experience ranges from stressful to pleasurable, boring to fascinating. However, sitting behind a little card saying "Canada" is an experience of a lifetime. The role of all these meetings is the international management of the radio spectrum, and my special interest is in how radio astronomy fits into this complicated picture.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this is that one gets previews of what new radio services are coming down the pipe well before they appear in the market place. For example in 1997 the big discussion was fitting into the radio spectrum personal devices for communication, entertainment and any other form of information. Now the devices are on the market and many people have them.

The pressure for fitting more radio systems and electronic devices into a crowded electromagnetic spectrum produces special challenges for radio astronomy. This science uses the most sensitive radio technology available, to its limits, and therefore vulnerable to interference. This leads us to the complications of spectrum management, and making sure all interests are taken into account.

One way to reduce the interference problem is to get radio telescopes off the Earth altogether. We could put them on the other side of the Moon, screened from the Earth's interference. Alternatively we could put them at one of the Lagrange Points. These are places in space where the gravity of the Sun and Earth interact to form stable points where we can park things.

The Lagrange Point option would suffice for fixed purpose instruments, because there is no changing your mind once they are on their way there. The other side of the Moon would in theory be better, but for the next few decades we won't be able to get there either. Until we have a manned Moon Base by the radio telescopes there will be overwhelming arguments for continuing to do radio astronomy on the Earth's surface, despite the difficulties. For example we can upgrade ground-based radio telescopes easily, getting new ideas on line rapidly. Secondly if there is a new astronomical discovery we can get something set up to study it very quickly. That flexibility does not apply to radio telescopes in space. Next, an important part of a science or engineering student's education is being put actually in contact with the instruments. These are the people who will drive Canadian science and instrumentation in future. You don't need to be an astronaut to work on ground-based instruments.

New technologies are developed on the ground. For example we have a group developing new antenna technologies, and some of our engineers are working with the University of Calgary to produce the most sensitive radio receiving technology ever. This work has the potential to revolutionize radio astronomy and communications technology. Working at the scientific and technical frontiers is a lot of fun... well, most of the time!

Ken TappingKen Tapping is an astronomer at the National Research Council Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics (NRC-HIA), and is based at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton, BC, V2A 6J9 Tel (250) 493-2277, Fax (250) 493-7767,