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Things finally looking up for DIY astronomers – CBC.ca

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In a rocky field off a private road halfway between Perth and Smiths Falls, Ont., three amateur astronomers gaze skyward, looking for the next big thing. 

They’re not peering through telescopes — at least not the kind you’re probably picturing.

Instead, they use cast-off satellite dishes to detect and translate the radio waves that all warm celestial bodies emit — objects that are often invisible to optical telescopes.

“Our eyes are good for optical wavelengths — we can see colours and that sort of thing — but the universe is actually much more complicated than that,” explained Marcus Leech, current president of the Canadian Centre for Experimental Radio Astronomy (CCERA).

“Radio telescopes are just telescopes for radio waves. So it’s just another way of looking at the universe.”

We’re doing big science on an extremely 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.

“A lot of optical observations can’t see these objects behind the dust. Radio astronomy sees them just fine.”

CCERA members Gary Atkins, left, Leech, centre, and Doug Yuill inside the donated trailer that’s the new nerve centre of their observatory. Last December, the astronomers found themselves homeless due to ‘an unfortunate confluence of both corporate and municipal politics,’ Leech says. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Grassroots science

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

Instead, Leech, along with colleagues Gary Atkins and Doug Yuill, spent their spring and summer mixing and pouring concrete, salvaging discarded satellite dishes and retrofitting the donated trailer that now serves as their operation’s nerve centre — all in a race against the onset of winter.

“We had to switch our focus to just surviving, finding a new place to be and then setting up that new place,” Leech said.

WATCH | Astronomers ready to stargaze again after eviction from former home:

DIY astronomers ready to stargaze again after being evicted from former Smiths Falls home

2 hours ago

Marcus Leech, president of the Canadian Centre for Experimental Radio Astronomy, says the organization is getting settled after finding a new home in Rideau Ferry. The group of amateur astronomers uses cast-off satellite dishes to detect radio waves that come from celestial bodies. 2:31

CCERA is a non-profit association that “supports education and research in radio astronomy techniques and applications targeted at smaller institutions and interested individuals,” its website says. It has an advisory board made up of some of the world’s top astronomers, who provide advice on an ad-hoc basis, and publishes its findings on its website.

It formed after the Canadian Space Agency decided in 2013 to dismantle an 18-metre dish that the astronomers were using in Shirleys Bay, a conservation area on the Ottawa River. They moved their operation to the Gallipeau Centre in Smiths Falls, in eastern Ontario, but last December — owing to what Leech describes as “an unfortunate confluence of both corporate and municipal politics” — they found themselves homeless once again.

After finding a plot of flat, clear land, the group spent the spring and summer erecting four parabolic dishes that act as radio telescopes. A fifth, larger dish will likely be installed next year. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

So the astronomers found a 15-hectare plot of flat, clear land in the small community of Rideau Ferry, struck a long-term “access arrangement” with the owner and in March began moving in. Now, eight months later, they’re nearly ready to roll.

Having an unobstructed view of the sky is as essential for radio astronomy as it is for optical astronomy, Leech said, because even trees emit microwave radiation that can interfere with their observations. Likewise, being “in the middle of nowhere” narrows the chance of man-made interference of all kinds.

The astronomers have installed four parabolic satellite dishes near their trailer: one hydrogen spectrometer, painted like a big yellow happy face, and three more dishes honed in on fast radio bursts, or FRBs, a phenomenon Leech describes as the current “darling” of the astrophysics community.

A fifth, larger dish is piled in pieces nearby, waiting to be assembled and mounted, likely next year.

Anomalies on a graph can indicate the presence of a celestial object. ‘We look for squiggly lines on graphs, basically, and we get excited about those,’ Leech says. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

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

While there are complex networks of radio telescopes capable of translating those invisible signals into sky maps and other images, CCERA’s current setup is not.

This image from the Virginia-based National Radio Astronomy Observatory shows spiral galaxy NGC 4254 in the Virgo Cluster. It combines radio data from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) showing molecular gas in red and orange, and optical imagery captured by the Hubble Space Telescope showing stars in white and blue. Few radio astronomy observatories are capable of producing this kind of image. (ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/S. Dagnello (NRAO))

“We look for squiggly lines on graphs, basically, and we get excited about those,” Leech said.

To the passionate radio astronomer, those anomalies are just as energizing as any pretty picture.

“The first time you see that squiggly line is actually really exciting, because you realize that … this thing happened 750 million years ago, and today it’s making a little squiggly line on your instrument — and that can be exciting for the right kind of person, I guess.”

Leech developed a passion for radio astronomy in high school. Now semi-retired after a career in high-tech, he devotes much of his time to his original interest. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Lofty goals on shoestring budget

Leech said he’s been “obsessed” with radio astronomy since he was in high school — though he was lured into the high-tech world, spending nearly 20 years at Nortel. Now semi-retired, he’s returning to his first passion.

This may be a shoestring operation, but CCERA’s goals are as lofty as the objects they’re trying to observe.

“I think being the first to discover the radio emissions of a new supernova before the optical guys see it, that would be a real feather in our cap,” Leech said. “Our first confirmed FRB would be a major, major achievement for an amateur effort, and so that’s our hope.”

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

But since their eviction from their former base in Smiths Falls, CCERA’s main focus has been on earthly survival, not the stars.

Historically, the group has relied on donations, as well as a partnership with Carleton University’s undergraduate astrophysics program. The COVID-19 pandemic cancelled in-person classes, however, shutting down that source of revenue.

Leech estimates the group needs about $20,000 a year to operate. For now, they’re scraping by however they can. Often, that means reaching into their own pockets.

“We’re doing big science on an extremely modest budget,” Yuill said.

But they know the payoff could be astronomical, scientifically speaking at least.

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International Space Station swerves to avoid space junk, Russia says – CTV News

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The International Space Station had to adjust its orbit to avoid collision with a piece of debris from a U.S. rocket, the head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, said on Friday, according to state news agency TASS.

“Five minutes ago, the ISS avoided a conjunction with the U.S. space debris, the Pegasus carrier rocket remnants,” Rogozin said, according to TASS.

Rogozin had said earlier on Friday that the maneuver to avoid the piece of debris from a U.S. rocket launched in 1994 was planned for 10:58 Moscow time.

The orbit had to be adjusted by the thrusters of the Progress MS-18 space freighter, which is docked to the station.

Earlier this week, NASA postponed a spacewalk, originally scheduled for Tuesday, after receiving a space debris warning for the International Space Station.

Just hours before the astronauts were due to venture out of the ISS, the agency said on its Twitter account that “due to the lack of opportunity to properly assess the risk,” it had decided to delay the spacewalk.

It was unclear at the time whether the warning was related to the space debris created by a Russian anti-satellite test two weeks ago that forced crew members on the International Space Station to scramble into their spacecraft for safety.

The six and a half hour spacewalk was later successfully carried out on Thursday, with NASA astronauts Thomas Marshburn and Kayla Barron replacing a malfunctioning communications antenna and achieving other “get ahead” tasks.

Thursday’s spacewalk was the 245th conducted to assemble, maintain and upgrade the space station, which has served as a continuous low-Earth orbit hub for humans for 21 years.

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Antarctica experiences rare total solar eclipse – Phys.Org

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Solar eclipse captured from the Arctic in 2015. Credit: Markus Frey

A rare total solar eclipse in Antarctica this weekend (Saturday 4 December) is giving researchers a unique opportunity to learn more about how solar eclipses affect space weather. The next total eclipse in Antarctica will not be until 2039.

The total eclipse, which happens when the sun and moon are in line with the Earth, will only be visible in Antarctica, sweeping across the Ronne ice shelf and Ellsworth land, with the rest of Antarctica in partial shadow. The maximum eclipse will be at 0733 GMT.

John Law, Antarctic Atmospheric Scientist at Rothera station says that “the team here are really excited about being able to witness the eclipse on Saturday morning. We will be setting our alarm clocks for the early hours, the maximum amount of Sun that will be hidden by the moon will be around 94% around 4am in the morning. During the summer, the sun never sets below the horizon so even at 4am we should see the effect of the eclipse. The sun will be low in the sky, hopefully just above the mountains of the Antarctic peninsula to the east of us. As a meteorologist I am normally a big fan of clouds but on this one occasion I’m hoping they stay away.”

Total solar eclipses provide researchers with an opportunity to understand how switching the Sun on and off affects space weather—the natural fluctuations in the space environment close to Earth, caused by the Sun.

As part of a multi-national campaign, researchers at British Antarctica Survey have placed a low-power magnetometer (LPM), which measures variations in the Earth’s magnetic field, directly under the path of the total eclipse. This, along with seven other BAS LPMs already in Antarctica, form part of a network of magnetic and other space weather sensors in both polar regions and in space, making this the most intensive space weather observation campaign yet for an Antarctic eclipse.

Changes in the Earth’s magnetic field are caused by electrical currents in the upper atmosphere of both polar regions, created by space weather. These magnetic variations can cause unwanted electrical currents in electricity networks, like the National Grid, which need to be forecasted to avoid damage. These electrical currents are also associated with aurora—the Northern and Southern Lights.

Professor Mervyn Freeman, a space physicist at British Antarctic Survey, says that “we expect solar eclipses to change electrical currents in the upper atmosphere by increasing the electrical resistance of the upper atmosphere—but at the moment we’re don’t fully understand how.”

Changes to Antarctic currents as a result of the eclipse could also indirectly affect currents in the Arctic and in space. These changes can also cause so-called ‘traveling ionospheric disturbances’ through the upper atmosphere across the globe, affecting sat-nav signals.

Professor Mervyn Freeman adds that “measuring the effects of the solar will challenge our understanding of space weather and test whether our forecasting models of how space weather affects electricity supply and satellite navigation are correct or need to be improved.”


Explore further

The longest lunar eclipse in centuries will happen this week, NASA says


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NASA astronauts complete ISS spacewalk after debris scare – TRT World

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The spacewalk, scheduled to take place on Tuesday, was postponed after NASA received a “debris notification” for the orbital outpost.

Last month, Russia destroyed an old satellite in a missile test, sending pieces everywhere.
(Reuters)

Two NASA astronauts have completed the 13th spacewalk at the International Space Station (ISS) this year, days after the event was postponed over a debris risk.

Astronauts Thomas Marshburn and Kayla Barron headed outside the space laboratory on Thursday, replacing a faulty antenna and restoring its capability, the agency said.

“It was awesome!” Barron said after completing her first spacewalk, according to a tweet NASA posted.

The duo also “did some get-ahead tasks for future spacewalks,” the US agency said, adding that the astronauts returned to the station after six hours and 32 minutes.

The spacewalk, scheduled to take place on Tuesday, was postponed after NASA received a “debris notification” for the orbital outpost.

READ MORE: What is ‘space junk’ and what are we doing about it?

In a subsequent statement, the agency said Houston experts were assessing a fresh risk from orbital rocket debris that may pass close to the ISS on Friday.

“Mission Control is working with NASA’s international partners to prepare for a possible debris avoidance maneuver,” they said.

NASA footage showed Marshburn catching a ride on the robotic arm to move around the ISS before getting to work on the antenna.

Decades of continued human presence

The spacewalk was the fifth for the astronaut, a doctor who flew aboard a Space Shuttle in 2009 and a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in a mission from 2012-13.

Barron, who was selected for the NASA astronaut corps in 2017, previously served as a submarine warfare officer for the US Navy. 

The pair arrived at the ISS on November 11 aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endurance with NASA’s Crew-3 mission for a six-month stay.

READ MORE: SpaceX returns ISS astronauts to Earth after 200-day flight

The ISS marked 21 years of continuous human presence this month, NASA said on its website.

During that period, they said, it had hosted 249 people from 19 nations who had taken part in thousands of research projects.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies

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