Do-it-yourself astronomers are finally looking

On a rocky field along a private road halfway between Perth and Smiths Falls in Ont., Three amateur astronomers are looking at the sky in search of the next big thing.

They don’t look through binoculars – at least like the ones you’re probably describing.

Instead, they use detached satellite antennas to detect and translate radio waves emitted by all warm celestial bodies — objects that are often invisible to optical telescopes.

“Our eyes are good for optical wavelengths – we can see colors and such – but the universe is actually much more complex than that,” explained Marcus Leech, current president of the Canadian Center for Experimental Radio Astronomy (CCERA).

“Radio telescopes are just radio wave telescopes. So that’s just one way to look at the universe.”

We do great science on a very modest budget.– Doug Yuill, CCERA

Interstellar space is full of dust that can obscure our optical view of stars, planets, galaxies, and other objects, Leech said.

“Many optical sightings don’t see these objects behind the dust. Radio astronomy sees them nicely.”

CCERA members Gary Atkins on the left, Leech in the middle, and Doug Yuill in a donated trailer, their observatory’s new nerve center. Last December, astronomers were made homeless “because of an unfortunate coalition of both corporate and municipal politics,” Leech says. (Francis Ferland / CBC)

Grassroots science

This is at least enchanting grassroots science. There are no white lab coats or state-of-the-art observatories.

Instead, Leech, along with colleagues Gary Atkins and Doug Yuill, spent his spring and summer mixing and pouring concrete, rescuing decommissioned satellite dishes and retrofitting to a donated trailer that now serves as the nerve center for their operation – all to compete against the onset of winter. .

“We just had to shift our focus to survival, finding a new place, and then creating a new place,” Leech said.

VIEW Astronomers who are ready to look at the stars again after being evicted from their former home:

Do-it-yourself astronomers are ready to look at the stars again after being evicted from their former Smiths Falls home

Marcus Leech, of the Canadian Center for Experimental Radio Astronomy, says the organization has established a new home on the Rideau Ferry. A group of amateur astronomers use detached satellite dishes to detect radio waves from celestial bodies. 2:31

CCERA is a non-profit association that “supports the training and research of radio astronomy technologies and applications for small institutions and stakeholders,” its website says. It has an advisory board made up of the world’s best astronomers who give advice on an ad hoc basis and publish the findings on their websites.

It came after the Canadian Space Agency decided in 2013 to dismantle an 18-meter dish used by astronomers in Shirleys Bay, the Ottawa River Conservation Area. They relocated to the Gallipeau Center in Smiths Falls, Eastern Ontario, but last December – according to Leech “as an unfortunate confluence of both corporate and municipal policies – they found themselves homeless again.

After finding a flat, bright ground, the group spent spring and summer erecting four parabolic bowls that served as radio telescopes. A fifth, larger container is likely to be installed next year. (Francis Ferland / CBC)

So the astronomers found 15 acres of flat, clear land in the small community of Rideau Ferry, entered into a long-term “access arrangement” with the owner, and began moving in in March. Now, eight months later, they are almost ready to roll.

According to Leech, an unobstructed view of the sky is as important to radio astronomy as it is to optical astronomy, because even trees emit microwave radiation that can interfere with their observations. Likewise, being “in the middle of nothing” narrows the possibility of all kinds of human-induced interference.

Astronomers have installed four parabolic satellite dishes near their trailers: one hydrogen spectrometer, painted like a big yellow happy face, and three other plates polished with high-speed radio bursts, or FRBs, a phenomenon Leech describes as his current “beloved.” astrophysics community.

A fifth, larger container has been piled up in pieces nearby waiting to be assembled and installed, probably next year.

Deviations in the diagram may indicate the existence of a celestial body. “We look for basically curvy lines in the charts and get excited about them,” Leech says. (Francis Ferland / CBC)

The radio signals they’re trying to capture are “insanely weak,” Leech said — in fact, the combined energy of all the signals detected since the invention of radio astronomy in the 1930s “should keep the candle burning for maybe half an hour. That’s it.”

Although there are complex radio telescope networks that can convert these invisible signals into sky maps and other images, the current CCERA settings do not.

This image from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Virginia shows a spiral galaxy among the Virgin NGC 4254. It combines radio data from the Atacama Large Millimeter / Submillimeter Array (ALMA) system, which displays molecular gas in red and orange, and optical images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope with stars displayed in white and blue. Few radio astronomy observatories are able to produce such an image. (ALMA (ESO / NAOJ / NRAO) / S. Dagnello (NRAO))

“We’re basically looking for curvy lines in the charts and getting excited about them,” Leech said.

For the passionate radio astronomer, these anomalies are as energetic as any beautiful picture.

“The first time you see that meandering line, it’s really exciting because you realize that … this happened 750 million years ago, and today it makes a bit of a curly line in your instrument – and it can be exciting for the right kind. I guess a person.”

Leech got excited about radio astronomy in high school. Now half-retired after a high-tech career, he devotes much of his time to his original interest. (Francis Ferland / CBC)

High goals with a shoestring budget

Leech said he had “accelerated” radio astronomy since high school – even though he was attracted to the high-tech world and spent nearly 20 years at Nortel. He is now half retired and returning to his first passion.

This may be a shoelace operation, but the goals of CCERA are as sublime as the targets they are trying to observe.

“I think the fact that it would be the first feather to detect radio emissions from a new supernova before the optical types see it would be a real feather in our law,” Leech said. “Our first confirmed FRB would be a great, great achievement for amateur work, so that’s our hope.”

Happy now? Astronomers decided to give their hydrogen spectrometer a new look to their new home. (Francis Ferland / CBC)

But since they were evicted from their former base in Smiths Falls, CCERA has focused primarily on worldly survival, not stars.

Historically, the group has relied on donations as well as partnerships with the Carleton University Undergraduate Program in Astrophysics. The COVID-19 pandemic canceled personal hours, which, however, shut down that source of income.

Leech estimates the group needs about $ 20,000 a year to operate. For now, they are scratching how they can. Often it means reaching out into your own pockets.

“We do great science on a very modest budget,” Yuill said.

But they know that victory can be astronomical, at least in scientific terms.

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