Shipment heralds the beginning of our newest project

On Tuesday a tractor-trailer wormed its way along the winding White Lake Road, from Highway 97 to our observatory. It was carrying a large orange container. After some contorted manoeuvring in our observatory car park the trailer was alongside a crane brought in by a local company. The container was carefully lifted off the trailer and deposited in the space cleared for it. This event was a major step forward in one of our current projects, the development of a special instrument: the Next Generation Solar Flux Monitor (NGSFM).

Inside the container was a four metre diameter dish antenna, newly arrived from Ottawa.  Seeing that container sitting on our observatory grounds was an exciting moment we had been looking forward to for three years. Over the next year we will marry this antenna to an exotic radio receiver and signal processing system under construction here at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory. The NGSFM is part of a collaborative project between the National Research Council, Natural Resources Canada and the Canadian Space Agency.

Most of astronomy is aimed specifically at improving our understanding of the universe, how it came to be as we see it now and how it works. In doing so it provides the additional benefit of spinning off new developments in antenna, radio, computing and imaging technologies.  Although our new instrument will make some new science possible, its primary purpose is to be a key component in a larger, inter-agency project aimed at improving space weather services for Canada. The user community for these include industry, government agencies and anyone involved in activities that are affected by conditions in space.

Space is not empty; it is pervaded by gamma rays, X-rays, ultra-violet radiation, high-energy particles, rarefied, ionized gas (plasma) and magnetic fields.  These fry satellite electronics, endanger astronauts, degrade radio communications, cause enhanced radiation hazards to air traffic on polar routes, causes power outages, corrodes pipelines and so on. Because Canada is a large country, lying close to the North Magnetic Pole, we are particularly vulnerable to bad space weather. The Sun is the engine that drives space weather, so having the right kind of stethoscope on the Sun lies right at the root of space weather prediction and warning. A good example of the need for this was what happened in 1989 when a large solar flare occurred, with a resulting impact of about $2 billion in damage. Today the impact could be far greater.

In 1947 the National Research Council started operating a radio stethoscope on the Sun, and has continued to provide solar information to the world ever since. This information, known internationally as the 10.7cm solar radio flux, or F10.7, is probably the most heavily used single piece of astronomical data produced in Canada.  However, since 1947 the needs of the user community have expanded and changed, hence our current upgrade to our solar monitoring and space weather services. This brings us back to that orange container.

Saturn rises about  8 p.m. The Moon will reach First Quarter on the 11th.

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council’s Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, and is based at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton.