receivers are absolutely essential in radio astronomy work. The need
has driven major advances in the state of the art of cryogenically cooled
front ends with noise temperatures near absolute zero. Antenna technology
has also benefitted from radio astronomy due to the need for precision
steering and narrow beam widths. Phased arrays (aka interferometers)
for interstellar targets requires that element spacing be large enough
to require separate antennas as the elements, which creates a very large
effective aperture, hence greater angular resolution. Networks located
continents apart are synchronized with the use of atomic clocks to allow
signal time of arrival and therefore phase to be accurately measured.
This story gives some of the early efforts.
June 1954 Radio & Television News
of Contents]These articles are scanned and OCRed from old editions of the Radio & Television News magazine.
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vintage Radio News
By Dr. F. G. Smith
Astronomers are using new tools and techniques
to provide the answers to some age-old riddles of the universe.
1. One of the parabolic reflectors being used with the interferometer
now in operation at Cambridge, England (right).
radar operators in England began to report a new kind of jamming observed
on their meter-wavelength receivers. Weak radar echoes became lost
in the "grass" on the (radar) screen, as if swamped by "noise" from
a powerful transmitter. In the Army Operational Group, a scientist named
J. S. Hey - later to be known as one of the pioneers of the new science
of radio astronomy - examined the reports. He established that the source
of the "jamming" was no enemy station, but the sun, and he noticed that
at that time an exceptionally large sunspot was crossing the sun's face.
Radio amateurs can detect this radiation from the sun during
periods of sunspot activity, and even television screens are affected
by it, but few people know that the sun and some other celestial objects
are radiating short radio waves continuously.
The first observations
of this steady radiation were made in 1932 by an American radio engineer,
Jansky, who was investigating the level of noise picked up by a sensitive
receiver on a frequency of 20 mc. He found that a directional antenna
gave a greater noise signal when pointing at the constellation of Sagittarius,
in the brightest part of the Milky Way, than in directions away from
this high concentration of stars. Ten years later, a radio amateur,
Reber, built a parabolic reflector antenna 30 feet in diameter, in his
own yard, and used this to make a map of received signal strength on
frequencies up to 500 mc. over a large part of the sky.
Then came one of the most startling discoveries, again first hinted
at by J. S. Hey. Workers in Australia and England found that the radio
waves picked up by Jansky and Reber came, not only from the Milky Way
but also from some quite definite points in the sky, as though individual
stars were transmitting to us. But there were no bright stars at these
points, and it was not until 1952 that these "radio stars" were identified
with visible objects in the sky; even then the objects were so faint
and inconspicuous that it needed the 200-inch Hale telescope at Mt.
Palomar to find them. Many astronomers have become interested in this
new science as an extension of astronomical techniques, and radio-astronomy
is now being put to use in many parts of the world extending our knowledge
of the solar corona, interstellar gas, nebulae, and even of our own
ionosphere. In this article we shall be concerned less with the results
than with the methods, since the problems of technique are of great
interest and are not well known.
Fig. 2. Array of full-wave dipoles at 3.7 meters. This
array is one-half of an interferometer for detecting radio stars.
See text for full details.
The 600-inch "radio telescope" installation at the Naval Research
Laboratory which is being used to study radio "signals" from
the sun, moon, and stars. Scientists use this research tool
to extend man's knowledge of the universe and to assist in forecasting
the conditions for radio communications work.
Fig. 3. Interferometer records of "quiet sun" radiation.
Fig. 4. Part of interferometer recording showing the presence
of several of the minor "radio stars."
Fig. 5. Section of record with high sensitivity showing
intense source in Cassiopeia. See text for details.
Fig. 6. (A) How two similar antennas, spaced several wavelengths
apart, are used to detect radiation from the sun. (B) Use of
a phase-sensitive detector to eliminate receiver noise. (C)
Improved version of the circuit shown in (B) in which the antenna
noise is continuously compared with the noise generated from
a controllable local source. a noise diode. (D) A pair of antennas
connected in a radio interferometer with a device for reversing
phase of the signal from one antenna periodically.
Fig. 7. Parabolic reflectors used in an interferometer
for accurate direction finding.
The two main problems facing
the radio-astronomer wishing to study radio waves from some object or
region in the sky are simply stated. First, the power available in his
antenna is usually not greater than about 10-16 watt. Second,
the beam width of his antenna is usually vastly greater than the angular
size of the object, and the radiation picked up may well have come from
many other objects in this region. Both these difficulties, of signal
strength and resolving power, clearly call for large antenna systems
and the radio astronomers are, in fact, building large antennas for
this work. In Manchester, England, there is now under construction a
very remarkable parabolic reflector antenna. This will be 250 feet in
diameter, and it will be so mounted that it can be directed towards
any part of the sky. The reflector will be made of wire mesh, and the
accuracy of its surface will be such that it can be used on wavelengths
as short as a half meter or less. But many observations can be made
with much smaller antennas by using the principle of the radio interferometer.
If two similar antennas spaced several wavelengths apart and
both directed towards the sun, are connected to the same receiver, as
in Fig. 6A, it is possible to distinguish the radiation received from
the sun against a background of radio waves from the stars behind it,
although this background may be several times more intense than the
solar radiation. The records of total power received from such a radio
interferometer as the sun moves slowly across the sky would be like
those in Fig. 3, showing some actual records on various wavelengths.
In each the sinusoidal variation of signal is due to the sun passing
in and out of the interference zones of the spaced antennas, whereas
the steady signal, most evident on the longer wavelengths, is from the
extended source of the Milky Way background. An improved method of recording
recently used makes a record of only the sinusoidally varying signal,
giving the intensity of the solar radiation without any confusion from
the background radiation. The method of achieving this, known as phase-switching,
will be described after we have examined more closely the problem of
detecting these exceedingly small signals.
The character of
the signals received from the sun and the stars is exactly the same
as that of "receiver noise." If we connect the input of a receiver first
to an antenna and then to a dummy load, the difference in signal may
be demonstrated as a change in the output of a detector circuit, but
this change may be only a few percent of the output, most of which is
due to the receiver noise. It is necessary to record this difference
without including receiver noise, and this is achieved in the schematic
of Fig. 6B. The use of a phase-sensitive detector enables a long time
constant to be used in the output circuit, and the smoothed output records
the difference between the two levels of noise. An improvement is again
made in Fig. 6C, where the antenna noise is continuously compared with
the noise generated in a controllable local source, in practice, a noise
diode. The output from the local source is automatically adjusted to
equality with the antenna noise, and a record of the current in the
diode gives a direct record of antenna noise unaffected by the characteristics
of the receiver. The records in Fig. 3 were made in this way.
These methods of detecting small noise signals have been widely
used in the measurement of the total noise power received at an antenna.
But in radio astronomy it is often necessary to select only that part
of the noise which is coming from a small source in the sky, perhaps
a radio star or a sunspot, and to disregard a large proportion coming
from a diffuse background of other sources. A new method of detection
is then used.
In the schematic of Fig. 6D a pair of antennas
is connected in a radio interferometer with a device for reversing the
phase of the signal from one antenna periodically. The lobes of the
interferometer radiation pattern then shift by a half lobe width, due
to the phase shift, and the signal from a source smaller than the lobes
of this pattern will change periodically by an amount depending on its
position in the pattern. Again a phase-sensitive detector is used to
measure this periodic change in output. In Fig. 4 we see the recorded
output of such a phase-switching receiver connected to a large interferometer
operating at a wavelength of 3.7 meters, shown in Fig. 2. The output
is centered on zero, and the groups of oscillations each record the
passage of a radio star through the antenna receptivity pattern as the
earth rotates. This method of recording radio stars has been used in
the accurate location of some of the most intense radio stars. A record
from the intense radio star in Cassiopeia using part of the same interferometer
is shown in Fig. 5.
The interferometer in Fig. 2 is located
along an east-west line so that each radio star is detected as it crosses
the meridian, a line from the zenith to the south point. The time of
this crossing, found from the record, gives the position of the star
in the sky. The timing may often be carried out to an accuracy of about
0.1 second, but unfortunately the actual position of the star cannot
be determined quite as accurately as this. For one thing, the position
of the interferometer axis must be known, and with the antennas of Fig.
2 this cannot be defined to better than about 2 minutes of arc. The
interferometer in Fig. 7 was specially built for such work, and the
line joining the bearings of the two parabolic reflectors was determined
to 10 seconds of arc. These reflectors are two of the antennas of the
"Wurzburg" radar set much used by the Germans during the war. They are
27 feet in diameter, and the two are mounted 900 feet apart, 200 wavelengths
at 1.4 meters, the wavelength used in the most accurate direction finding
experiment yet made. With this interferometer, a radio star in the constellation
of Cassiopeia was located within an area only 10 seconds by 30 seconds
of arc. The position was given to astronomers at Mt. Palomar, who found
with the 200-inch telescope a new type of nebula exactly in the right
This new branch of science is certainly providing new
tools for the astronomer in his survey of the heavens, but it may also
prove to be a useful approach to some studies of the ionosphere. When
Hey first detected radiation from a radio star, he distinguished it
from the background because the signal was fluctuating in a peculiar
way. This effect we now know to be very similar to the scintillation,
or "twinkling," of ordinary stars. It is caused by refraction in irregularities
in the earth's ionosphere, through which the radio waves pass, and by
studying the fluctuations in signal it has been found that the irregularities
are in the upper part of the F-region, inaccessible to pulse-sounding
methods. It appears that the top of the F-region occasionally becomes
corrugated, to an extent of about one percent of its total depth, the
wavelength of the corrugations being about 5 km. The whole structure
is drifting across the earth at a speed of several hundred miles-per-hour,
and the effect on the ground is similar to the moving pattern of sunlight
on the bottom of a swimming pool when waves disturb the surface. The
cause of this ionospheric disturbance is still unknown.
useful way of investigating the ionosphere has been suggested. As the
radio waves from a radio star pass through the ionosphere they may be
refracted in such a way as to make the star appear in the wrong position.
The amount of this displacement may be measured, and depends primarily
on the total number of electrons in a vertical column right through
the ionosphere. Pulse-sounding methods are not suitable for this measurement,
and it is likely that understanding of the ionosphere, still full of
mysteries, will be helped by these new experiments.
exciting discoveries of radio astronomy have been in the search for
sources of radio waves in our galaxy and in extragalactic nebulae, and
this search is being pursued with great vigor in several places. The
new Manchester antenna will be used in this work. Recently some details
were published on a new antenna1 at the Ohio State University
designed to carryon the search. There is, however, a large interferometer
antenna now in operation at Cambridge, England, which may well be called
the largest radio-telescope in the world. Its parabolic reflectors cover
an area close to 50,000 square feet. Results from a survey of radio
sources in the Northern sky should be available in a few months' time.
No description of this instrument has yet been published, and a picture
of one of the reflectors in Fig. 1 is the only one available as yet.
It is hoped that this instrument will provide some further clues to
the solutions of the great problems "What are radio stars?"; "How many
are there in our galaxy?"; "Do other galaxies have radio stars like
ours ?" - questions we may hope to have answered in only a few years
, J. D. and Ksiazek, E.; "New Techniques in Radio Astronomy," Electronics,