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28 April 2008 100 Years of Radio Astronomy: Past, Present and Future On 28 April a packed audience in the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s main lecture theatre was privileged to hear a fascinating talk on the history of Radio Astronomy. This year’s Robert Cormack Bequest lecture was given by Professor Mike Garrett, Director of ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, which collaborates extensively with observatories and universities in Britain. Professor Garrett’s lecture formed the finale of the annual Cormack Meeting, organised for and attended by astronomers from across Scotland. The meeting itself was crammed with high-quality talks, the majority given by students. The topics covered included observational and theoretical work on the Sun and the Solar System, the discovery of a planetary system similar to our own, the gas between the stars, the nearby Andromeda galaxy, gravitational lenses (light can be focused by gravitational fields), and surveys on how galaxies cluster together and what that implies for cosmology. Those present even heard about work on alternative descriptions and theories of gravity, which attempt to solve some long-standing problems with Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. Two prizes were awarded: Garry Angus of St Andrews University won the Postgraduate Prize for a talk entitled On the proof of dark matter, the law of gravity and the mass of neutrinos. The Undergraduate Prize was won by Laura Porter of Glasgow University, for her talk Cometary Impacts with the Sun. Professor Garrett’s Cormack Lecture was entitled One Hundred Years of Radio Astronomy: Past Present and Future. He began with the startling news that, although he was born in Scotland and is a graduate of Glasgow University, he had never given a talk in Scotland and indeed had never before delivered a public lecture. 0ne would never have guessed the latter, for his talk was fascinating, accessible and rich with history: he brought the past to life with whimsical details of the landmark events and dramatis personae, told of radio astronomy’s most exciting discoveries, and even touched on the possibility of detecting radio signals from other intelligent species. Professor Garrett introduced his topic by setting out the scale of the Universe, from the Solar System to the most distant things that can be observed. He pointed out that the travel time of light (of which radio radiation is a form) means that the further away we look, the more deeply we reach into the past. The relatively long wavelength of radio waves also means we are looking at very large structures (rather than at atoms or molecules), material at temperatures close to absolute zero, and objects that are radiating by exotic, high-energy mechanisms utterly unlike the ‘thermal’ radiation coming from our own Sun. Radio astronomy has provided a unique and very different view of the Universe. He began with a look at the roots of radio astronomy, which was an outgrowth of the desire to understand and abolish various mysterious sorts of static that might interfere with the new technologies of radio and telecommunications. In 1932 Karl Jansky, working at the Bell Telephone Labs in New Jersey, discovered a signal that repeated once every 24 hours. He quickly realised it must originate beyond the Earth – and probably from the centre of the Galaxy – and reassured us that it was not likely to come from an intelligence trying to communicate! When the electronics engineer and amateur radio enthusiast Grote Reber heard about Jansky’s discovery, he built the world’s first radio telescope, in 1937. He realised that to understand the mechanisms producing the signal detected by Jansky, one must look at different frequencies. He built a detector that could look at very low frequency (long wavelength), and to his shock he found
that instead of getting ever weaker as the frequency dropped (as it would in a thermal object such as the Sun), the radio signal coming from the Galaxy got much stronger. This was the birth of a whole new area of astrophysics, which has led to dramatic discoveries about the Universe. Radio astronomy has been the topic of six Nobel Prizes. Professor Garrett mentioned some of Reber’s other projects, which made him something of an eccentric in his day, but which we would now say were visionary. For example, he built one of the world’s first solar-heated houses, and also designed, built and drove an electric car known as Pixie. Shortly before World War II, the British astronomer Bernard Lovell began working on cosmic rays in the atmosphere. But having taken his detector to a hilltop one day, he was picked up by the Ministry of Defence and commandeered to develop radar for the detection of enemy aircraft. After the War he moved to Jodrell Bank, near Manchester, where he built a fixed radio telescope with which, in 1949, Robert Hanbury Brown obtained the first radio map of another galaxy – the Andromeda spiral. Later, Lovell built the now-famous steerable radio telescope at Jodrell Bank, still the third-largest steerable dish in the world. By the late 1950s, financial support for Jodrell Bank had sharply declined. But it was about to do its bit for the Cold War. A transfusion of new funds flooded in when the Soviet Sputnik satellite was launched in 1957, sparking fears in the West about possible missile attacks and galvanising Western governments into ensuring they could detect them, if launched. The telescope was rapidly adapted and was able to detect Sputnik’s booster rocket. Bernard Lovell went on to detect the Moon landings of two Soviet satellites. The telescope even intercepted the first-ever picture transmitted from the surface of the Moon while it was being transmitted from Luna 9. In those days of distrust and suspicion, Professor Garrett told us that Jodrell staff with Communist sympathies were carefully monitored by MI5. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, the telescope was again diverted from its astronomical observations to point eastwards. In the event of an ICBM launch towards the UK it could have provided a seven-minute warning, saving millions of lives. Radio astronomy was advancing at a meteoric pace, and observers were seeking ways of seeing finer detail in astronomical objects. How small a feature can be made out in an image is governed by the size of the telescope. But the Jodrell Bank dish was already as large and heavy as engineering could make it and the need to make a larger telescope stimulated British astronomer Martin Ryle – by a brilliant piece of lateral thinking – to invent the technique of aperture synthesis, for which he won a Nobel Prize. By placing two or more telescopes some distance apart, and then adding their received signals in a computer, a much larger telescope can be simulated, which can then measure the size and shape of very small structures. This was done at Jodrell Bank by driving a second, mobile telescope around the Cheshire countryside, and it was found that pub car parks proved as good a place as any to perform observations! Aperture synthesis is a form of interferometry, so named because of the way the signals are added together to create a picture. Interferometry led to the discovery of some tiny, very bright astronomical radio sources, but no-one knew what or how far away they were: were they truly small and nearby or enormous and very distant? By a remarkable coincidence, shortly afterwards, the passage of one of these sources behind the Moon allowed it to be identified as a faint blue star. When this star was observed with an optical telescope, one of the most exciting discoveries in the history of astronomy was made: that these star-like radio sources were immensely distant and extremely powerful objects of unknown kind. They were soon dubbed ‘quasi-stellar objects’, for they could not possibly be stars. It is now known that these quasars are powered by super-massive black holes. Another new class of astronomical object came to light in 1968, during observations to find out whether quasars twinkle like stars. Tony Hewish and research student Jocelyn Bell found an object that beamed radio waves in pulses, and wondered at first whether they’d detected a signal from an alien intelligence! These are the now-famous ‘pulsars’, the dead remnants of exploding stars, rotating like abandoned, gradually-slowing lighthouses as they cool and fade. Mike let us hear the
recording of a very young pulsar, spinning so fast that when translated into audio form its signal sounds like a high-pitched squeal. One of the most exciting discoveries of radio astronomy is the realisation that a large fraction of the energy observed in the Universe is released from strong gravitational fields rather than by nuclear fusion that lights the Sun and the stars. The central parts of active galaxies are often powered by gravity, not nuclear fusion. Professor Garrett closed by talking briefly about some of the exciting new radio telescopes now being designed or constructed: LOFAR (the LOw Frequency ARray), based in the Netherlands, and SKA (the Square Kilometre Array), to be built in Australia and South Africa. LOFAR is an interferometer, but it is one unlike any other. It is an array not of individual telescopes, but of simple antennae. Because an antenna is relatively cheap, a great many of them can be bought and distributed over a very large area, simulating a much bigger telescope, as before. Construction of the LOFAR array, with a diameter of 350 kilometres, is well under way; it will eventually have 25000 antennae. LOFAR is also set to expand across Europe, with stations in the UK, Germany, Sweden, France and Italy expected to be built in the next few years. SKA is still in the design phase. It will probably be a hybrid array of individual antennae and conventional radio telescopes, with a total area of one square kilometre – 50 times larger than anything we have today. SKA is expected to be operating in about seven years’ time. Both of these new telescopes will be able to look at extremely fine details in radio sources, and are expected to reveal features never seen before. SKA will be able to detect the ‘leakage radiation’ (from television and telecommunications) emitted by any Earth-like civilisations in the Sun’s vicinity. But more importantly, they will be able to see the dawn of the Universe, the time when hydrogen first started to condense into the structures from which galaxies were formed. They promise to reveal secrets about the form and evolution of the Universe, and to cast light on some of astronomy’s greatest puzzles. The next decade will be an exciting time for radio astronomers! Professor Garrett’s talk stimulated lots of questions. How do you synthesise a circular aperture when all you have is two telescopes? He explained that the imaginary line joining the telescopes sweeps out a circle on the sky as the Earth rotates. Are China and India doing radio astronomy? Professor Garrett replied that both countries are involved with SKA. China is building its own telescope, FAST, and is sending lots of high-quality research students to study in UK universities. Astronomy is excellent at attracting young people all over the world into science. He said he considered it very important not to close down the recently-upgraded Jodrell Bank telescope, which would severely impact Britain’s participation in SKA and its reputation as a world leader in astronomical research. How common is life in the Universe? This simple but profound question launched Professor Garrett on a fascinating mini-talk. He pointed out that more than 10% of stars have planets, so in our Galaxy alone we can expect perhaps ten billion solar systems. Predicting how many have life (let alone intelligent life) is much more difficult, as first realised by the astronomer Frank Drake almost 50 years ago. It is perplexing that we haven’t detected signals from any intelligent species, who presumably are also trying to contact other civilisations. Professor Garrett said he thinks microbial life is probably common, but intelligent life rare. Alternatively it could be that civilisations are transient, or their technological phase short-lived. He talked about SETI, the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence, saying how important it is to ensure it continues to be funded. Are we sending signals? Professor Garrett replied that we are not, in general, although occasionally this is done as a public relations exercise to stimulate funding. However, other civilisations would be able to detect our ‘leakage’ radiation from television signals and military radar operations. Alison Campbell
Opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the RSE, nor of its Fellows The Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s National Academy, is Scottish Charity No. SC000470
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