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ARCHIVES: Algonquin Radio Observatory could have been another Avro Arrow

By Anthony Dixon, The Daily Observer

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Editor's note: With the recent announcement of Thoth Technology's patent of a 20km space elevator, there has been a lot of media focus on the Canadian company. Back in 2008 I visited with Brendan Quine and Caroline Roberts of Thoth Technology to do a feature on the Algonquin Radio Observatory at Lake Traverse on the east-side of Algonquin Park. I am happy to once again present that feature that shares part of the story of a hidden treasure of technology that many may not know exists in the wilderness of Algonquin, and how it was saved from decommissioning by Thoth Technology. Please remember this story is from 2008.

Thoth's website:

Current and updated information on Thoth's mission to Mars (mentioned in the story) can be found at:


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Emerging from a wild Algonquin Park landscape, she turns her face to the heavens and looks into the deepest reaches of the universe.

The radio telescope at the Algonquin Radio Observatory (ARO) is the largest antenna in Canada and one of the largest in North America.

Its dish is 46 metres (150 feet) across and it towers like something out of a science fiction movie above the conifers surrounding Lake Travers, deep inside the east side of the park.

Completed and commissioned in 1965, the National Research Council's giant antenna scanned the universe for decades, but as a result of continued budget cuts, the NRC closed the observatory in 1991.

The ARO continued to be used irregularly by universities, companies and Natural Resources Canada, but eventually, the giant radio telescope was scheduled for complete decommissioning and Canada was set to lose one of its engineering marvels.

In January of this year, the telescope received a stay of execution thanks to Thoth Technology Inc., a Canadian space company that has big plans.

Thoth Technology is leasing the observatory from the federal government for 20 years.

The company's chairman of the board and its technical director, Brendan Quine, D. Phil. (Oxon.), P.Eng., said taking apart the telescope would have been a terrible loss for the whole country.

"It cost about $250 million to build. It would be a terrible shame to level it," said Mr. Quine. "And then there would be the loss of Canadian capability in this area (of science). The observatory is such a wonderful place. It would have been another Avro Arrow if it had been lost. We were determined not to let that happen."

Thoth Technology provides space tracking and communications services for both near-Earth and interplanetary spacecraft using the big antenna.

Mr. Quine explained the antenna is completely steerable and can track the faintest objects in the sky with great precision.

The moving part of the antenna rests 1,000 tonnes on the telescope's base and yet, according to Mr. Quine, it is so well engineered that it only takes four, four horsepower motors to turn the antenna in azimuth and elevation.

One of the first tasks that needed to be performed on the telescope, once Thoth Technology moved in, was to clean out debris inside the gears.

"About 100 million lady (bugs) had nested inside the telescope and their crushed shells were causing instability inside the drive system," Mr. Quine said. "We've got most of them cleared out now."

Radio antennas, like the one at the Algonquin observatory, can be constructed on a much larger scale than an optical system, which allows them to 'see' farther into the universe.

The antenna's giant parabolic collector focuses electromagnetic radiation towards a point called the focus cabin which is mounted in the centre of the dish on four legs, just above its surface.

Radio astronomy provides scientists with information on the composition and dynamics of stellar bodies as well as helping them better understand Earth through careful measurement of its motion through space.

The Algonquin Radio Observatory was the first to demonstrate VLBI or Very Long Baseline Interferometry, which is used to measure continental drift and other very precise geodetic data.

The large reflecting surface also enables the antenna to receive communication signals from far away.

As both radio astronomy and geodesy need extremely accurate timing signals in order to provide useful data from observations, the observatory has its very own atomic clock or hydrogen maser certified by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The clock is so precise; it loses less than one second in 30 million years. The clock and a series of Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) antennas located on the ground near the big antenna are used to calculate corrections for the orbits of GPS satellites. If this were not done, errors in position would slowly creep into GPS receivers.

The Algonquin antenna was designed and built by the Freeman Fox Company who also built the observatory's sister dish at Parkes Observatory in Australia. That dish is mechanically identical to the Algonquin dish but because it does not have to survive the ice and snow of a Canadian winter, it has a slightly larger surface. The dish at Parkes Observatory was the one that returned the video of the first lunar landing during the Apollo 11 mission.

"They have really loved (taken care of) theirs. There is no reason that ours can't be restored. It just needs some tender-loving-care," Mr. Quine said.

The observatory was set up in Algonquin Park for a number of reasons, according to Mr. Quine.

He explained that the area around Lake Travers is a radio-quiet zone and is also very geologically stable.

Another benefit is the low amount of water vapour in the air, particularly during the winter, which offers better telescope performance.

To construct the Algonquin dish in the 1960s, a giant crane had to be specially shipped from the United Kingdom for the project.

Each of the giant steel plates forming the dish was manually tuned, in order to optimize the antenna's performance.

Over the years, those plates have rusted and therefore, are another focus of Thoth Technology's restoration project.

Mr. Quine said what the dish needs is simply a fresh coat of paint to protect it. To apply the paint, the dish is rotated so that it is pointing straight up allowing engineers to stand on its surface and paint it with a standard handle and roller as though it were a floor.

Mr. Quine said Thoth Technology intends to use the Algonquin Radio Observatory as the ground station for the upcoming Northern Light mission.

Northern Light is a Canadian space mission to send at least one and possibly more landers to the planet Mars.

While York University is the official research host for Northern Light, the mission currently involves 12 universities across Canada and about 50 scientists. The rover that will explore the Martian surface is called the Beaver. Through the mission, scientists hope to discover new information about Mars' atmosphere, surface and subsurface.

The dish, where Very Long Baseline Interferometry was first demonstrated, will use VLBI navigation to guide the spacecraft carrying the Beaver rover to Mars.

Caroline Roberts, Thoth Technology president, explained that Canada does not have a domestic launch capability so a spacecraft will have to be procured from the commercial market.

The project is leaning towards a European/Russian company that would use a converted Russian SS-19 intercontinental ballistic missile to launch the lander.

The observatory's dish was used to track the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter and the Japanese spacecraft Nozomi during their flights to Mars.

Thoth Technology is named after the Egyptian god of technology and wisdom.

Mr. Quine said many famous astronomers and all of Canada's astronauts have visited the Algonquin observatory.

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