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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.