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NRC scientists produce world’s most sensitive radio detectors to probe universe


Victoria, BC – The National Research Council of Canada says it has designed and built the most sensitive and precise radio detector ever built for millimeter-wavelength operation. The Band 3 millimeter-wavelength radio receiver promises to revolutionize studies of the cold universe, notably about the birth of stars and planets.

Created at the National Research Council Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics (NRC-HIA), several Band 3 receiver systems will be installed on the world’s largest and most sophisticated radio telescope the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, known as ALMA, being built in the Chilean Andes.

ALMA is a unified collection of more than 50 high-precision radio dishes, 5 km above sea level on the Chajnantor plain, which will be used by a an international consortium for radio astronomy.

A receiver will be installed on each ALMA antenna for research purposes but will also ensure that atmospheric disturbances are corrected across the entire ALMA array. ALMA is the highest priority for a new ground-based astronomical facility in the Long Range Plan for Canadian astrophysics. The first scientific results should be available in about three years. Researchers expect spectacular images of young stars and galaxies to be made using the Band 3 receivers.

“The international ALMA community has placed a great deal of faith in NRC’s ability to deliver stable, reliable receivers,” says Gregory Fahlman, NRC-HIA’s director general. “I am very proud that we have designed and built the highly precise electronic and mechanical components necessary for reliable operation under extreme conditions.”

Band 3 operates at a temperature of -269C (the temperature of the internal system necessary to suppress noise) and can withstand the harsh external environment on the Andes in Chile. Fred Lo, director of the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory, says that “Band 3 will be a leading workhorse for producing the exciting scientific discoveries we expect from ALMA.”

The Band 3 receiver can also be used in other applications. The amplifier design for Band 3 has been licensed to Nanowave Technologies of Ontario. Band 3 amplifiers have already been sold to the French atomic energy agency for use in advanced materials research.

“In addition to creating what we believe is a unique Canadian industrial capability to serve the needs of the worldwide radio astronomy and physics communities, the transferred technology provides Nanowave with the additional tools to access the much larger commercial and defense radar and satellite communications markets,” says Justin Miller, president of Nanowave Technologies.