As kid I wanted to be a pioneering spaceman who discovered a Jurassic planet where a guy my age could tame and ride a friendly T-Rex. So much for Hollywood and a ten year-old’s brain. I’m embittered at the fraud and hold Leslie Nielsen and Robbie the Robot personally responsible for the spaceman bit to this day. The thing is, I am still interested in space despite my early warped drive.
One of the most interesting things you can do in British Columbia is to drop in on the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory. And by drop-in, I mean it.
The Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory (DRAO) is a high-tech, low-security facility where six days a week you can wander basically at will without someone getting in your face or confiscating your camera. On the seventh day (Saturday) you can take a guided tour.
Jody Foster would feel comfortable here looking for SETI. It’s her kind of place – a group of radio telescopes instead of a winking dome like you get at Mount Palomar. This observatory is a huge field of specialized telescopes and DRAO is the electronic equivalent of an isolated mountaintop.
DRAO’s purpose is to listen.
That’s it. Just listen.
Computers and supercomputers, like the EVLA WIDAR Correlator, listen to radio waves emitted by objects – like planets and molecules – scattered about the universe to determine its composition and history.
The observatory is located in a small bowl-like valley just west of the central Okanagan Valley in the southern interior of British Columbia. The first flash that jumped into my mind when I saw the bowl gave me one of those “Doh!” moments. Looking around, I decided the site had been chosen in the 1950s because it would block out light pollution from the nearby Valley towns. Then I realized it didn’t matter because radio waves aren’t affected by visible light.
What the high hills surrounding the observatory really block are the stray radio waves generated by the machinery of civilization.
The radio telescopes are so sensitive, signs requesting visitors to shut down their cell-phones because the interference they cause are posted in the parking lot. Other signs tell visitors they have to walk 400 metres to the Visitors’ Centre because electrical fields created by their cars will cause the same result.
The walk is pleasurable. Hollywood couldn’t have designed it any better. It starts with an optical illusion. As I came up to a small rise the road appeared to lead directly to largest of the dish telescopes, which is framed by a stand of trees. In reality the road took me past two other groups of telescopes first.
To my left, as I came down the other side of the rise, was a collection of four medium-sized dishes (there are seven of these altogether scattered around the site) that looked like Cold War radar installations. These are the Aperture Synthesis radio telescopes that are used to make images of hydrogen gas clouds and emissions from magnetic fields in space.
If you’ve seen the movie “Contact” you have an idea of the size of these receivers.
When radio astronomers started working on their telescopes they suddenly realized that to get the sensitivity they needed, they would have to build a dish almost three quarters of a kilometre (almost half a mile) across. Instead they opted for a bunch of these smaller dishes joined together in a moveable array.
The earliest telescope at the site was erected in 1959 and is still in use today. It’s the largest of the dish telescopes at DRAO and the 26-Metre telescope is the one you see from the road as you come up the rise.
It overlooks the 22-Megahertz telescope, which seems more primitive. The 22-MHZ is a porcupine field of telephone poles stretching several hundred metres in every direction. Strung between these are receiving antennae (basically wires) that collect low frequency, short wave, information that comes from inside our galaxy – the Milky Way.
Not everything the scientists at DRAO study is from deep space. There is a project going on right now to look at the Sun and the different solar events that occur.
There is an unmanned Visitors’ Centre. I don’t imagine they get enough traffic to have someone on duty all the time. Still, there were lots of good pamphlets and displays to give me the feeling that I was at least somewhat acquainted with DRAO’s operations and goals. (It also has washrooms for bladders that are no longer ten years old.)
Oh yeah. Unlike Jodie, they aren’t looking for E.T. But of course, if he does happen to call home DRAO won’t turn down a collect call.
August marks the annual Perseids Meteor shower and the DRAO will be hosting a star watching evening with telescopes (yes the kind you look through) provided by the local astronomy club. If you’re in the vicinity August 12, drop by to look at the sky.
All photos © Bruce Kemp
Dish of 26-Metre Telescope
Four Synthesis Radio Telescopes
Telescopes at Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory near Penticton BC