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Brendan Quine and Thoth Technology restored the Algonquin Radio Observatory. (Ivan Semeniuk/The Globe and Mail)
Brendan Quine and Thoth Technology restored the Algonquin Radio Observatory. (Ivan Semeniuk/The Globe and Mail)

Researchers give Algonquin observatory a second life Add to ...

In the wooded quiet of eastern Ontario, a long neglected giant is tilting its massive ear toward the heavens once again.

After years of inactivity and a crippling breakdown, the Algonquin Radio Observatory is at the forefront of a novel experiment that could transform the study of pulsars, collapsed stars that rotate at blinding speed and emit telltale radio pulses.

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The effort may also herald an unexpected second life for the national facility, with its prized 46-metre radio dish – by far the largest in Canada. But while it took a cast of hundreds to complete the observatory in 1965, its rebirth is the work of a small but dedicated band of private contractors.

“Today has clearly been the most successful run we have had,” researcher Ue-Li Pen said when astronomers and observatory staff gathered for dinner last month in the dormitory that once housed dozens of government scientists.

A researcher with the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, Dr. Pen has led the pulsar project, which is based on an idea of his for imaging the exotic stars with unprecedented precision.

Because pulsars are the densest objects that can be observed in the universe, they are of interest to many researchers who are trying to understand the behaviour of matter at extreme pressures.

Sitting across the vintage 1960s table, Brendan Quine, the chief technical officer with Thoth Technology Inc., welcomed the news of the successful run. With a background in satellite assembly and testing, Dr. Quine has been overseeing the restoration of the radio telescope since 2007. He credits Dr. Pen with blazing the trail that he hopes will inspire more astronomers to use the giant dish.

“Its potential for discovery is undiminished,” Dr. Quine said.

Others may be skeptical. The Algonquin dish, situated far from commercial radio noise in the heart of Ontario’s largest provincial park, is one of several constructed around the world during the flowering of radio astronomy half a century ago. But the field’s cutting edge has long since shifted to higher frequencies and larger facilities, such as the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, which consists of 66 high-precision dishes installed on a high plateau in the Andes mountains of Chile.

With science budgets tightening in much of the world, many individual radio telescopes – even some of the world’s largest, such as the 100-metre dish at Greenbank, W.Va. – are under threat of closing. In Canada, the Algonquin Radio Observatory’s original owner, the National Research Council, stopped using the facility for astronomical observations more than two decades ago. It was later employed by Natural Resources Canada to measure the movement of the Earth’s crust by using radio sources in space as reference points.

Then one of the telescope’s large bearings fragmented under its share of the 1,000-tonne dish, rendering the entire facility inoperable.

Faced with the cost of dismantling a major piece of the nation’s scientific heritage, the federal government instead leased it to Thoth, a small company run by Caroline Roberts (who is married to Dr. Quine) along with a handful of other staff. Together, they have managed to bring the radio telescope back from the dead.

“We had to find our way,” said Dr. Quine, describing the long process of restoring the defunct observatory.

The company hopes to profit from commercial and academic clients who can use the dish for communications and research applications. Because building a comparable dish from scratch would cost in the neighbourhood of $300-million, he added, “It makes a great deal of sense to look after the one we have.”

Dr. Pen began working with the observatory last year, not for the Algonquin dish alone, but for the chance to use it in co-ordination with other radio telescopes at distant locations, including the Netherlands and India. The technique – called very-long-baseline interferometry – was pioneered at the Algonquin facility soon after its construction. It can allow a group of widely separated dishes to function as if they were one much bigger dish.

Taking this well-established principle one step further, Dr. Pen’s goal is to use the co-ordinated telescopes to intercept signals from a pulsar that have bounced off of clouds of ionized gas adrift in space before coming to Earth. In theory, if the bounced signals can be assembled properly, the resulting image will be equivalent to that from a radio telescope many times the size of our solar system. This would allow astronomers to zoom in on pulsars as never before.

“No one’s tried to do something like this before,” said Jason Hessels, a radio astronomer at the University of Amsterdam. Dr. Hessels was intrigued enough to join the project this’ year and was on the Netherlands’ end of last month’s observations. “It’s certainly a challenge and there’s no guarantee that it’s all going to work.”

The attraction, he said, is the possibility of using the technique to directly observe a pulsar as it orbits around another star. If the pulsar’s motion can be measured with enough accuracy the astronomers will then be able to work out the pulsar’s mass, typically an unknown quantity. The mass, in turn, can reveal reams of information about a pulsar’s interior.

Although the project is driven by purely academic interest, it is funded in Canada by a type of federal grant that is intended for scientists working with industry. The Conservative government’s enthusiasm for such grants have been a source of controversy, because research advocates say they inhibit basic science at the expense of short-term, commercially oriented goals.

In this case, though Dr. Pen and his colleagues are using a piece of government equipment to conduct what is plainly basic science, the involvement of Thoth Technology as a private-sector partner loosened the government’s purse strings for the effort. The telescope will be used more symbolically by organizers of a science festival in Toronto next month to transmit a message to the stars.

Dr. Quine said he hopes other researchers will see a similar opportunity and make creative use of the Algonquin Radio Observatory. In the meantime, Thoth is also trying to woo international customers, including China’s national space agency, which could conceivably be in need of a global network of radio dishes to support a manned mission to the moon in the near future.

Dr. Pen said that his experiment may inspire some astronomers to take a second look at the Algonquin dish. “I think what we’ve shown is that you can actually do science, at least niche science,” with the Canadian facility.

“Enthusiastic people, even on a shoestring [budget], can do something,” he added.

 

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