Hi-Tech Spin-In

Ken Tapping, May 20th, 2015

In the sky this week…

  • In the late evening three planets will be visible.
  • Venus shines brilliantly in the west, like a searchlight, with Jupiter almost as bright, high in the south-west, while Saturn rises in the east.
  • The Moon will reach First Quarter on the 26th.

Did you know that electronic components developed for your smart phone or computer games are benefitting radio astronomy and other sciences? Today, technologies intended for the consumer market are making possible the construction of research instruments that would otherwise be unaffordable. This is because modern consumer devices require cutting edge technologies that must also be inexpensive.

Developing modern hi-tech devices can be extremely costly. If only a few of these devices will be needed, the whole development cost has to be covered through the sale of those items, which can make them extremely expensive. On the other hand, if those items will be manufactured and sold by the million, they can be very cheap. Today, the inexpensive devices developed for consumer electronics are becoming suitable for use in research instruments, such as radio telescopes. This is revolutionizing science, making feasible projects that would otherwise be impossible. In the past, instrumentation for research produced technologies that could be used in consumer products. This process has become known as “spin off”. Maybe the reverse of this, where technologies migrate from consumer products to cutting edge science instruments may be referred to as “spin in”. Here are some examples which are in progress at our observatory.

We are visual animals, and prefer our information to be in the form of pictures. Our eyes do this by using a lens to project an image of our surroundings on a layer of many sensitive cells on the back of our eyes. Digital cameras work the same way; a lens projects an image on a layer of sensitive “pixels” mounted on a sheet of glass or plastic. Imaging what we would see if our eyes could see cosmic radio waves is a different issue altogether. We would need lenses hundreds of metres or even thousands of kilometres in diameter to show us the detail we need. That is not technically possible or affordable. The best we can do is scatter around the landscape as many antennas as we can afford and then use a very complex processing system to produce the image. Fortunately this sort of high-speed number crunching is what is needed for the imaging in high-end computer games. So a lot of money has been invested in developing high-speed video processor digital chips for games controllers and computers. Since many millions of these have been made to meet the needs of the gaming community, these chips are cheap. We have found that we can make high-speed astronomical image processors by using lots of these chips

Another good example is a rather unusual radio telescope intended for use in a project called CHIME (the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment). This radio telescope is intended to probe the secrets of Dark Energy, the force that is making the universe expand faster and faster, to look for the beginnings of structure in the very young universe, and other front line experiments. To work, this device will need thousands of sensitive amplifiers. Fortunately the devices needed are being manufactured in huge numbers for use in smart phones.

Hi-tech “spin-in” is critical in the construction of the biggest radio telescope ever – the “Square Kilometre Array”. This instrument will be made up of thousands of small antennas. Cost per radio telescope has to be kept to a minimum. This can only be done by exploiting commercially available technologies. It’s intriguing to think that the inexpensive components developed for smart phones and domestic electronic devices are playing a role in advancing fundamental science.

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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