The Vermilion River Observatory

How Grainger Engineers took on the FCC and carved out a leadership position in the early days of radio astronomy.

Fall 2022

Astronomy discoveries make the front page from time to time. As recently as 2019, when researchers around the world – including several Grainger engineers – revealed the first image of a black hole ever captured, it made the front page of The New York Times. The Times described the image as “a final, ringing affirmation of an idea so disturbing that even Einstein…was loath to accept it. If too much matter is crammed into one place, the cumulative force of gravity becomes overwhelming, and the place becomes an eternal trap. Here, according to Einstein’s theory, matter, space and time come to an end and vanish like a dream.”

Astronomy controversies make the front page markedly less often. But when they do, Grainger Engineers are there too. Take a lead story from April of 1963 that the Times headlined “Scientists Fight TV Group for Channel:”

The Federal Communications Commission is being forced to decide whether it is more important for astronomers to listen to the static of stars billions of miles from earth than for television viewers in Paterson, N.J., to watch a late movie…

Four persons have applied to the F.C.C. for permission to operate a television station in Paterson, on Channel 37, one of the ultra high frequency television channels.

At Danville, Ill., about 700 miles away, University of Illinois scientists, with support from the Office of Naval Research, have installed a large telescope to listen to the signals generated by distant  “radio stars,” particularly those beyond the Milky Way galaxy.

The parabolic radio telescope, about 400 feet wide and 600 feet long, is designed to operate in the same 608-614 megacycle band that is used by Channel 37.    With the support of the astronomical community and a committee of the National Academy of Sciences, University  of Illinois scientists are protesting  to the F.C.C.

They say that signals from the Paterson station as well as other Channel 37 stations authorized in the future could interfere with the reception of extremely weak celestial signals. Their proposal is that Channel 37 be reserved exclusively for radio astronomy. 

The debate on how to use Channel 37 had been brewing for years. Television had become big business, and the spectrum available to broadcast was becoming more scarce. Millions  of dollars were on the line with  each license the FCC issued, and the original VHF frequencies had been filled by 1948. The FCC opened up additional UHF frequencies – the ones on that secondary dial below your main VHF dial, back when TVs had dials, for those who remember – for commercial licenses in 1952. But they had since reserved Channel 37 informally because of its value to radio astronomers. By 1963, the UHF space was filling up, and the request from the group in Paterson brought things to a head.

Clever Use

In fairness, the radio astronomers – as well as the signals from distant stars, for that matter – entered the race for Channel 37 first. The electromagnetic radiation that allowed the human race to better understand the universe had been there for billions of years. And the telescope at what was called the Vermilion River Observatory had been there since 1959.

Professor George Swenson, of what was then the Department of Electrical Engineering, was given the project not long after arriving at The Grainger College of Engineering in 1956. Astronomy Department Head George C. McVittie gave him the charge, as Swenson explained in an article he wrote for IEEE in 1986. “[He] believed with many other cosmologists that a very extensive and complete catalog of discrete, cosmic radio sources would help to distinguish among competing cosmological theories. Two major catalogs of sources had been published by radio astronomers in Cambridge, England, and Sydney, Australia, but they did not agree well in the region of the sky in which they overlapped and it was desirable to confirm them with different instruments.”

Lo, Swenson, Vitkevitch and Davidson
At the site of the 400-foot radio telescope. From left to right,  Y.T. Lo, G.W. Swenson, Jr.,  V.V. Vitkevitch and  R.A. Davidson.

The resolution to those disagreements, as the University  of Illinois professors saw it, was a new radio telescope built in a ravine 40 miles east of campus.  It would target the 600-megahertz range because the data collected by the astronomers in England and Australia were at significantly lower frequencies. To capture that range, “the device would be a 400 x 600 foot cylindrical parabolic reflector made by covering a shaped-earth excavation with asphalt and wire screen. A catwalk at 155 feet above the ground supported about 400 conical log-spiral antennas along the focal line,” Swenson wrote  in the IEEE publication.

Professors John Dyson and Y. T. Lo, researcher Kwang-Shui Yang and student Kenneth Seib also contributed mightily to the design – and to the construction, which was done without contractors  in a matter of months.

Because they took advantage of the ravine’s natural topography, which was impacted by rain and erosion, the team spent time  every summer surveying the  land and reestablishing the telescope’s precise measurements. The necessary repairs, Swenson wrote, “were effected with shovels, rakes, hoes and a portable tar kettle.”

The first data from the telescope were published in the thesis of PhD candidate John M. MacLeod in 1964. Professors and research labs throughout campus used the telescope to map much of the Milky Way, discover remnants of supernovae, deeply study the Cygnus X region and areas of ionized hydrogen and study the cores of several galaxies for  the first time.

After the telescope was retired  in 1969, Swenson went on to lead the design of the Very Large Array radio telescope facility in Socorro, New Mexico, for the National  Radio Astronomy Observatory.

Little Green Men

By 1969, the controversy over the 608-614 megahertz range and the broadcast of the late show in Paterson had waned. The informal protection from the FCC turned into a 10-year moratorium on television licenses in that band. The moratorium eventually became a permanent home for radio astronomy. If you still have a TV with two dials on it lying around somewhere, it’s still not going to pick up anything on Channel 37.

But no one was quite sure how it came about. McVittie chalked it up to perseverance and some good –  if dubious – public support. During an interview with the American Institute of Physics in 1978,  he said:

“[W]e got laughed at [by colleagues for trying to get the FCC to keep the range clear.] But we persevered, George and I, slowly, I don’t quite know how, we found Representatives and Senators  who were sympathetic, or who  for one reason or another wanted to support it. The legislature of Illinois, for example, supported it. I don’t think the legislators understood what it was about,  but it was something that would  be important for Illinois, for the kudos. So, they started sending resolutions to the FCC, all sorts  of people heard about it…”

“Rumors have had it that… somehow the news got around that here was this new way of listening to little green men  on Mars. This is what radio astronomy seemed to the ordinary public. And the FCC was preventing it from being developed in the United States.  We got rumors, George particularly from friends he knew, that gradually a huge accumulation of letters arrived at the FCC, protesting against this nonsupport of this new science, whatever it was. And that this finally persuaded the FCC that they’d better give in. Nobody knows.”

Grainger Engineers never turned up little green men for their letter-writing public, but they did help define a very productive generation of radio astronomy from a hand-built telescope in the woods outside of Danville, Illinois.

Earthward and Skyward

Astronomy and space science thrive at The Grainger College of Engineering more than 50 years after the Vermilion River Observatory was decommissioned. They contribute to the designs of major, international research programs and the data that they produce. Some look skyward, while others focus their attention on the earth and its atmosphere.

Studying Neutron Stars Via Gravitational Waves

Design and construction of the massive Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory spanned decades before it detected its first gravitational waves in 2015. LIGO uses laser interferometry to measure the distortions in space-time – caused by gravitational waves passing through the earth – occurring between stationary mirrors at sites more than 3,000 miles apart in Washington and Louisiana.

Astronomers around the world used resources from the University of Illinois’ National Center for Supercomputing Applications to model LIGO’s performance during its design. Today, Physics Professor Nicolás Yunes and his team study the gravitational waves that LIGO detects when a pair of  black holes or neutron stars merge. In a recent issue of Physical Review Letters, they found new ways to use gravitational waves to learn about  the nature of neutron stars and the physics in their cores. 

Space Weather

The Global Lyman-alpha Imager of the Dynamic Exosphere (GLIDE) satellite  is set to “rideshare” to space with another, larger satellite in 2025. GLIDE  will make unprecedented measurements of the exosphere, which extends more than 100,000 miles above Earth’s surface about halfway to the moon. That data will provide researchers with better ways to forecast and, ultimately, mitigate the ways in which space weather can disrupt modern technology, such as satellite electronics, radio communication, electric  power distribution and even air travel.

Professor Lara Waldrop, a J.T. Lo Fellow in Electrical & Computer Engineering, leads the entire $75 million GLIDE project, which is funded  by NASA. All aspects of the mission will be handled by the GLIDE team – from design, to development, construction and even the eventual post-launch operations. The team also includes researchers at the University of  California at Berkeley, Boston University and Ball Aerospace.

Where Sun Meets Wind

The Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, explores the tug-of-war between Earth’s atmosphere and solar radiation of space that takes place in the ionosphere. ICON investigates the forces at play in the near-space environment, in order to better understand disturbances that can interfere with communications and GPS signals. The satellite has been in orbit since 2019, and the algorithms behind two of the four instruments on ICON were designed by Grainger Engineers, led by Electrical & Computer Engineering Professors Farzad Kamalabadi (Kung Chie and Margaret Yeh Endowed Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering), Jonathan Makela  (Abel Bliss Professor in Engineering) and Gary Swenson.

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This story was published September 20, 2022.

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