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Resurrecting Canada's Long-Lost 46-Meter Telescope In the Middle of the Woods

You can find a lot of things in Algonquin Provincial Park—trees, trails, probably some bears, and a massive radio telescope.

You can find a lot of things in the heart of Ontario's Algonquin Provincial Park—trees, trails, probably some bears, and an enormous radio telescope that has been pointed at the sky for decades.

The Algonquin Radio Observatory, home of this 46-meter parabolic dish, was built by the National Research Council beginning in 1964 to study radio signals from faraway stars. Its main antenna is still one of the largest in North America.

But for a long time it used to sit in the remote park, almost in total disrepair and disuse. That is until 2008, when a private technology firm partnered with researchers and engineers to help resurrect the old behemoth into what will hopefully be a real, working space observation centre.

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Dr. Brendan Quine, an associate professor of Space Engineering and Planetary Sciences at York University, has been working with a small team at Thoth Technology Inc. to return the observatory to its 1960s-era working state. And as you might imagine, refurbishing a half-century old radio observatory full of outdated technology has been no small feat. 

"The location was chosen because it's on the Canadian shield, so you can put a one and half thousand tonne machine on it," said Quine, on the choice to put it in the middle of Canadian nowhere. "It's in a radio quiet location. There are no microwave antenna towers in the park, so that provides the radio quiet that we need. And in the winter there's very low water vapour in that part of Ontario atmosphere, because it's so cold, and that gives very good viewing conditions for radio astronomy."

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In other words, Algonquin is a haven for not only backpackers and outdoorsy types, but also radio astronomers. Even today, with the creep of cellphone reception and radio interference at the edges of the park, it remains better suited for radio astronomy than almost anywhere else in Canada.

When Thoth took over in 2008, the main antenna dish wasn't working—one of the four gearboxes moving the dish having failed—and extensive upgrades to the buildings electrical and heating systems were required. Those repairs took over three years. All the while, documentation for many of the facility's components are hard to find, if they even exist at all.

"I think a number of the drive systems were [from] 1974," Quine said. "So we're talking about handmade electronics using giant monolithic components on racks and racks of boards, mounted in cabinets with giant forced air systems to keep everything cool. And some of them are still being used now."

Thoth recently swapped out the main antenna's azimuth encoder—a device that uses various algorithms to tell the operator where the antenna is pointing in space—which has dramatically improved its accuracy. They've also installed a fibre connection running from the focus cab—the instrument box that sits above of the dish itself on four legs—to the operations building, so that telemetry can be returned faster, in higher volumes, and with less signal degradation versus the old copper wiring.

The location was chosen because it's on the Canadian shield, so you can put a one and half thousand tonne machine on it

There are also plans within the next two years to equip the main antenna with a camera capable of imaging entire patches of sky in high definition. Traditionally, operators had to sweep the antenna back and forth across the sky one pixel at a time to build an image, not unlike the way an old CRT television's image is raster scanned. 

That outdated method is not exactly ideal for capturing movements in the night sky, not to mention being hard on the thousand-tonne dish's mechanical bearings. Of course, that increase in resolution will also mean an increase in data output too, and Thoth has been working with IBM on ways to cope. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons

"We record currently at 800 million samples per second on eight channels, writing more than 2 TB of data an hour," said Quine, adding that the new imaging system would increase the number of channels to hundreds or thousands.

Once all of these upgrades are complete, governments, researchers, and academics worldwide will be able to pay for dish time. That'll be something unique to radio observatories, as there aren't many that are privately-owned. Already, a researcher with the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics is using the antenna to study distant pulsars. 

Quine said they're especially interested in collaborating with other observatories worldwide to create a commercial service for communicating with deep space crafts on interplanetary missions. It would eventually compete with NASA's own observatories and Thoth is "actively recruiting" participants.

In the meantime, the Algonquin Radio Observatory remains very much under construction—a job Quine estimated in 2008 would take 15 person years to complete. Nevertheless, the observatory is already in a much better state than it once was. It used to cost the Canadian government $1.5 million per year to operate, according to Quine, something that Thoth has managed to reduce by 75 percent. 

When NRC owned the site, more than 50 people worked at the facility, compared to the handful of employees and researchers that now maintain the facility on-and-off. The operations building was previously heated year round, even when not in use.

"The lighting system when we took over used more electricity than to turn an 1000 tonne telescope," said Quine with a laugh. And those were just indoor lights (5 kilowatts, to be exact). "Obviously, as a small company we couldn't run like that."

As for the living conditions at the remote observatory, "rumour is there used to be a French chef" back in the days when the Canadian government ran the show, Quine said.

While the site plans to be a serious destination for observing the heavens, it's a safe bet that Thoth won't be bringing the chef back anytime soon.