Radiotelescope gears up for new age

The antenna of the much-celebrated RT-32 radiotelescope facility at Irbene in Ventspils district of Kurzeme province has been dismantled and is being painstakingly upgraded back to the required state-of-the-art specifications. By summertime it should be towering again over the treetops of the Irbene woods and back in operation as a key station in Europe’s network run by the Ventspils International Radioastronomy Center.

As the Center’s director Valdis Avotiņš told Latvian Radio Wednesday, the 32-meter wide radiotelescope antenna was taken down and apart at the end of last year, now laid out under a specially-built shelter for the renovation work. Renovation works coordinator Jana Berka keeps tabs on every weld, stressing how important it is to observe the highest precision in forging together the details of each pane in the system.

“Impressive, even considering we’re working on this every day. First of all, the entire taking down process, the precise preparations, with a 300-ton crane working at maximum precision to lift the antenna off the structure,” she described the dismantling.

“Even now it’s quite a sight. We walk up to this gigantic structure and realize it consists of over 20,000 elements – and we know each one of them by face,” she said.

The 60-ton panes get welded afresh, every rusted fragment replaced. In places the antenna had suffered from lightning strikes and moisture, as well as the plain onset of time. Avotiņš sees this as a project for the century, for him it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event.

The Radioastronomy center began operating at Irbene in 1974 for Soviet military purposes. During the 1990’s it was repurposed for scientific research. The renovations are intended to bring the facility back up to par with Europe’s network of radioastronomy research centers.

“When we can guarantee round-the-clock remote-control measurements in sufficient quantity, streaming the data at fast speeds in real-time – these are complicated tasks,” the director mused.

The Irbene radiotelescope will in fact help comprise a much larger virtual telescope that will be most significant to international science.

As Berka explained, “each telescope joining up to this research program, say Ventspils – Poland, we immediately create a 500-kilometer large virtual telescope. We observe one point simultaneously. Each telescope gives its precision point, that’s why Europe is waiting on us, when we’ll be ready. We will have new receiving equipment, motors, remote control operating system, etc. We are climbing into a new era,” she said.

Avotiņš also welcomed the expected improvements in sensitivity and precision of measurements. "To see one order more closely, or further, to learn more about the galaxies, the origins of life, etc. To measure closer objects – comets, asteroids. These are the measurable objects we will be working with,” he said.

If all goes according to schedule, the antenna should be lifted back in place by June.

Altogether the project, in cooperation with partners amongst the Ventspils district local governments, the state and EU co-financing, has cost close to €16m. About €1.5m was needed just for the antenna pane’s renovation alone.

Meanwhile, the Cabinet meeting expected to rule on whether or not to finally pay the member-state dues to the European Space Agency was cancelled this week because so many ministers are away in Brussels presenting and defending Latvia’s priorities for the Presidency of the Council of the EU. Latvia remains the sole country still not a member of the ESA, Europe’s key agency for cooperation in cutting-edge high-tech research and development.

Economy
Economy