Calgary’s role in an international hunt for star-forming molecules in space is also laying the foundation of Canada’s future in wireless communications, participants say.
University of Calgary researchers helped design, build and program the high-frequency radio astronomy instrument launched into orbit last week on the Odin satellite. The international $60-million research project includes Canada, Sweden, Finland and France.
Odin’s molecule detector uses pioneering high-frequency radio receivers, technology that will eventually find its way into cellphones and other commercial wireless equipment on Earth, says Sun Kwok, University of Calgary professor of astronomy and physics.
“Scientists are building the base of the future of the communications industry in Canada, because no industry in Canada is doing these kinds of things,” Kwok says.
|Odin's high-frequency radio receiver technology will find its way eventually into commercial wireless equipment on Earth.|
The U of C “played a significant role in both the science and the technology” of Odin’s molecule detector, says Rejean Michaud, a spokesperson for the Canadian Space Agency.
Kwok’s team included U of C engineer Steve Torchinsky, who helped design and build the instrument, while colleague Kevin Volk wrote much of its software. They spent years collaborating with researchers in Sweden.
“The knowledge that they bring back to Canada is now available to the Canadian (communications) industry,” Michaud notes.
The Canadian Space Agency contributed about $15 million toward the project. Odin (named after the Norse god of wisdom) was launched into a 600-kilometre high orbit that takes it from pole to pole above the Earth.
The compact satellite is only about two metres long by one metre wide, tiny compared with the bus-sized Hubble Space Telescope.
Odin’s power-generating solar panels were successfully deployed shortly after last week’s launch, Kwok says. Scientists will begin turning on the scientific package, which also includes a University of Saskatchewan instrument to study pollution in Earth’s ozone layer, in a couple of weeks.
During its two-year operating life, Odin will search for water and oxygen molecules in interstellar clouds that are cooling, in the process of forming stars. The research will help scientists understand how chemical processes occur in the vacuum of space, including the birth of stars.
In 1999, a U.S. scientific satellite was the first to detect the presence of water molecules in interstellar clouds. But if Odin finds the oxygen molecules, it will be a first.
It’s impossible to study the interstellar molecules with an instrument on Earth, because the planet’s atmosphere — comprised of the same molecules — block the radio frequencies from space. “We have to go above the Earth’s atmosphere,” Kwok says.
To detect the faint radio signals, the highly sensitive receiver on board Odin operates in the 600-gigahertz frequency. In comparison, a typical cellphone operates at one gigahertz. Today’s cellphone capability is generations ahead of lower-frequency technologies such as AM and FM radio and television.
“The whole commercial application of radio is the history of going to higher and higher frequencies,” Kwok notes.
“So this is the future. I see that 30 years from now, our cell phones or whatever (wireless equipment) will be running at high frequency.”