York physicist shares top award for radio telescope mission

Wayne Cannon and the S2The prestigious 2005 Laurels for Team Achievement Award of the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) has been given to a team of scientists from Canada, Japan, the US, Europe and Australia that includes Professor Wayne Cannon of York’s Department of Physics & Astronomy.

Cannon is one of three Canadian researchers on the team who, along with principal investigator Peter Dewdney of the National Research Council of Canada and Russ Taylor of the University of Calgary, participated in the development of a radio telescope system with a size four times the diameter of the Earth. This virtual telescope produces ultra-high-resolution images of objects in space that help explain the nature of quasars and active nuclei of galaxies harbouring massive black holes.

Right: Wayne Cannon with the S2 correlator developed at York

Past recipients of the Laurels for Team Achievement Award include the Hubble Space Telescope Team, the US Shuttle team, the Russian MIR Space Station team and the SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) space mission team. The award was presented at the 56th annual congress of the International Academy of Astronautics, held in Fukuoka, Japan, on Oct. 16.

The mission is known as the Very Long Baseline Interferometry Space Observatory Project, or VSOP for short. The Canadian team, using technology developed at York by Cannon, provided the mission with one of its three radio-wavelength correlators, or data processing devices. The instrument collects data from several earth-bound radio telescopes and from ground stations that are tracking the Japanese “Halca” radio-telescope satellite and helps process them into detailed images of stars and galaxies.

The Japanese-led VSOP mission was one of the most difficult astronomical space missions ever attempted. Its objective was to develop space VLBI (very long baseline interferometry) techniques using the Halca orbiting radio observatory, launched from Kagoshima Japan in 1997. The system enabled researchers to synthesize the sharpest focussing radio telescope yet. The effective aperture of the device is more than 30,000 km in diameter and has an angular resolution at microwave frequencies more than 100 times higher than the Hubble Telescope.

Halca was used as a space-borne receptor along with a gobal network of radio observatory telescopes on the ground. Data from Halca was downlinked to the network of tracking stations and combined with data from the ground radio telecsopes observing the same radio source as Halca. The data is recorded and transported to a special correlator facility for processing into high-resolution space VLBI images. Cannon led the effort to develop the system that was placed at the VSOP tracking stations to acquire the downlinked data, as well as at many ground based radio observatories around the world that were participating in VSOP.


Above: Artists rendering of the Halca satellite and earth tracking stations that rely on the S2 correlator developed at York

The S2 VLBI data record/playback systems developed at York were immediately recognized by the international VLBI community as the highest performing system in the world and rapidly became a world standard system. The system was acquired by national radio astronomy organizations in Australia, Canada, Chile, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Puerto Rico, Russia, South Africa, Spain and the US for use in a large variety of scientific research endeavours in addition to the critical role it played in the VSOP mission.

The S2 VLBI data systems have established a large scientific legacy in the international arena. They are central to the cost-effective development of the first southern hemisphere VLBI network with a correlator facility in Sydney, Australia, and other radio observatories in Australia, South Africa and Hawaii. The S2 systems were acquired by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for use with their 70-metre diameter antennas of the Deep Space Tracking Network in Goldstone, Calif., Madrid, Spain, and Tidbinbilla, Australia, for tracking of interplanetary probes.

The S2 systems are also used by the Canadian Geodetic VLBI (CGLBI) program of the Geodetic Survey Division of Natural Resources Canada which makes regular observations on an international network of antennas located at the Algonquin Radio Observatory in Algonquin Park, Ont., the Yellowknife Geophysical Observatory in the Northwest Territories, the Svetloe Radio Observatory north of St. Petersburg, Russia, the Kokee Park Radio Observatory in Hawaii, the Gilcreek Radio Observatory near Fairbanks, Alaska, and the Transportable Integrated Geophysical Observatory (TIGO) developed in Germany by the Bundesamt Fur Kartographie und Geodasie (BKG) and located at Concepcion, Chile.

The Canadian VSOP team benefited from $3.2 million in funding by the Canadian Space Agency. “The CSA-funded instrument, built and operated by the Canadian team, provided spectacular high resolution radio images that help explain the nature of quasars and active nuclei of galaxies harboring massive black holes,” said Marc Garneau, CSA president.