Feeds

Google launches broadband balloons, radio astronomy frets

A careless Loon could blind the square kilometre array

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk

So what's not to like?

There's one community that has reservations.

With millions already put into decades of planning for the Square Kilometre Array, and billions devoted to the build, radio astronomers are wondering why Google didn't get in touch before blowing air into a project that has the potential to disrupt our search for the origins of the universe.

While Google hasn't gone into great depth about its radio kit – only saying that the equipment will be specific to the Google Loon project, and will operate in the ISM bands (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz) – any transmitter at all in the frequencies the SKA is designed to operate in could be problematic.

The problem is this: for the lower frequencies, there's a substantial overlap with what the SKA is designed to look for. As ANU and UC Berkeley astronomer Dr Brad Tucker explained to Vulture South, the lower ISM band sits squarely in the frequency range that astronomers want to scan to spot the formation of the universe's earliest galaxies. That's the range from 0.5 GHz to 3 GHz, known as the SKA Mid-band.

“That band is important to helping us pinpoint when the first galaxies formed, and the process of their formation. Somewhere in that band, we hope to be able to identify the line between when there were no galaxies, and when we can see galaxies,” Dr Tucker explained to The Register.

"Somewhere in that band, we hope to be able to identify the line between when there were no galaxies, and when we can see galaxies"

Trying to identify galaxies in this frequency band is “one of the big scientific goals of the Murchison Widefield Array.”

Murchison Widefield Array telescope installation

A Murchison Widefield Array installation. Big science might have big problems

with Google's Project Loon

And there's high confidence among the astrophysics community that somewhere in that frequency range they will be able to see the transition between an early universe with no galaxies, and where the galaxies begin to appear. Frequencies outside this band had already been eliminated, even twenty years ago when early discussions formulated the proposals that became the SKA.

Outside the footprint for now

At this point, the Google Loon test balloons shouldn't come anywhere near the MWA site: they were launched at the 40th Parallel, so far south that from Murchison, in Western Australia, they'd be well below the horizon.

The same might not be true, however, for radio astronomy sites in New Zealand – and that's a problem, Dr Tucker said.

“New Zealand is part of the long baseline configuration of Australia's SKA involvement. The long baseline gives us high resolution of galaxies at very high red-shift.”

In long-baseline configurations, radio telescopes separated by thousands of kilometres are connected together, creating an effective “dish size” of thousands of kilometres, thereby yielding vastly more information than any single dish could ever accomplish.

However, if there's a Loon balloon in the line of sight of an NZ facility, it would be knocked out of the configuration and the baseline length reduced accordingly.

“We don't know where in that frequency range we're likely to see the galaxies,” Dr Tucker went on.

Google Loon balloon envelope

"We think the new galaxy looks something like this". Image: Google

Any interfering signal that's visible to the radio-telescope is a problem – and that isn't limited by the 40 Km footprint Google's balloons will deliver useful signals to. The radio telescopes are so sensitive that even a transmitter low on the horizon, that Google believes is talking to the ground below it, will disrupt the operation of an antenna.

Radio astronomers don't even run microwaves in their facilities, in case the signals bounce off the ionosphere and return as noise in their instruments.

“If an object is there but we can't see past the nearby radio transmitter, we might never see that object,” Dr Tucker said.

Astronomers are geeks: Dr Tucker said he's just as interested in the project as the rest of the world. “It's a good idea, but the radio-astronomy community would like some consultation.”

The Register requested an interview with Google for this story, but has not received a response. ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

More from The Register

next story
MARS NEEDS WOMEN, claims NASA pseudo 'naut: They eat less
'Some might find this idea offensive' boffin admits
SECRET U.S. 'SPACE WARPLANE' set to return from SPY MISSION
Robot minishuttle X-37B returns after almost 2 years in orbit
LOHAN crash lands on CNN
Overflies Die Welt en route to lively US news vid
Experts brand LOHAN's squeaky-clean box
Phytosanitary treatment renders Vulture 2 crate fit for export
No sail: NASA spikes Sunjammer
'Solar sail' demonstrator project binned
America's super-secret X-37B plane returns to Earth after nearly TWO YEARS aloft
674 days in space for US Air Force's mystery orbital vehicle
Carry On Cosmonaut: Willful Child is a poor taste Star Trek parody
Cringeworthy, crude and crass jokes abound in Steven Erikson’s sci-fi debut
Origins of SEXUAL INTERCOURSE fished out of SCOTTISH LAKE
Fossil find proves it first happened 385 million years ago
Human spacecraft dodge COMET CHUNKS pelting off Mars
Odyssey orbiter yet to report, though - comet's trailing trash poses new threat
prev story

Whitepapers

Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
Why and how to choose the right cloud vendor
The benefits of cloud-based storage in your processes. Eliminate onsite, disk-based backup and archiving in favor of cloud-based data protection.
Three 1TB solid state scorchers up for grabs
Big SSDs can be expensive but think big and think free because you could be the lucky winner of one of three 1TB Samsung SSD 840 EVO drives that we’re giving away worth over £300 apiece.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.