Trickle down

Ken Tapping, October 2, 2013

In the sky this week…

  • Venus and Saturn lie low in the west after sunset.
  • Jupiter rises about 1am and Mars about 3am.
  • The Moon will be New on the 4th.

One of the mandates of our organization, the National Research Council, is the support and implementation of astronomical facilities and instruments for Canadian researchers. This used to be through building and operating facilities in Canada, but increasingly we are into international collaborations to provide instruments beyond the resources of single countries, at the best possible observing sites.

Examples of our international projects include the now venerable but continually upgraded Canada France Hawaii Telescope, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, the Atacama Large Millimetre Array and the Square Kilometre Array. Then there is the development of the WIDAR number cruncher as our share of the upgrading of the Very Large Array radio telescope. This is all very exciting stuff. On one hand there is all the science we can do with these instruments; on the other there is the challenge of developing entirely new technologies, many of which will find applications outside astronomical research.

This all sounds so far beyond the reach of the backyard astronomer that there is no point in even dreaming about it. However, if we look at how rapidly the exotic technologies associated with front-line astronomical instruments get cheaper, we see amazing possibilities for the hobby astronomer. These hi-tech astronomical tools “trickle down very quickly these days”. Moreover, the rapid developments in the consumer sphere, for example technologies in software defined radio, trickle upwards into the research community.

There are today completely automated amateur observatories that can tell when the night sky is clear, open up and observe many objects of interest, as listed beforehand, record the information digitally and then, when the sun rises, close up again, all while the observer enjoys a good night’s sleep. Such projects include measuring precisely a number of stars that vary in brightness, seeking planets orbiting other stars, or supernova explosions in distant galaxies.

A little while ago I received some observations of cosmic hydrogen clouds in our galaxy obtained using a small dish, a combination of home-made and cable TV amplifiers and a “dongle” intended to make your computer into a radio or TV, costing about $15. These bits, together with a personal computer, formed a sophisticated radio telescope that would have been way out of reach even a decade ago. Such an instrument cannot compete with professional level instruments, but it certainly opens new areas of exploration for amateurs. This trickle-up of consumer equipment into radio astronomy is what made the new CHIME radio telescope under development at DRAO possible.

If I had to pick two examples of technological trickle-down, then one would be the digital cameras intended for amateur radio telescopes. These are producing astronomical images of amazing quality. The second would be the increasing ease with which we can record data in digital form. This means that tasks hard to do using hardware can be done easily using software.

For years, professional astronomers have been able to just tell the telescope what they wanted to observe, and the telescope would point at that object all by itself. Now you can get backyard telescopes to do that too.

This trickle down and trickle up of technology between researchers and the community will continue, maybe even accelerate. Prepare to be further surprised by what our cutting edge facilities are coming up with, and also what is going on out in the backyard on clear, dark nights.

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council's Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton, BC, V2A 6J9.

Telephone: 250-497-2300
Fax: 250-497-2355

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