Grote Reber – Pioneer of Radio Astronomy

Reber Radio Telescope in Wheaton, Illinois, 1937

Reber Radio Telescope in Wheaton, Illinois, 1937

On December 22, 1911American pioneer of radio astronomy Grote Reber was born. He combined his interests in amateur radio and amateur astronomy and became instrumental in investigating and extending Karl Jansky’s [4] pioneering work, who in August 1931 first discovered radio waves emanating from the Milky Way. Reber conducted the first sky survey in the radio frequencies and is considered one of the founding figures of radio astronomy.

Born in Wheaton, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, Grote Reber graduated in 1933 in communications engineering from the Armour Institute of Technology (later Illinois Institute of Technology). As an electrical engineer, Reber was an amateur radio operator, and worked for various radio manufacturers in Chicago from 1933 to 1947.

NRAO Archives - Grote Reber - photo Source NRAO, US Gov't funded agency

NRAO Archives – Grote Reber – photo Source NRAO, US Gov’t funded agency

First Light

In 1937, Reber decided to build his own radio telescope in his back yard in Wheaton, a suburb of Chicago. His radio telescope consisted of a parabolic sheet metal dish 9 meters in diameter, focusing to a radio receiver 8 meters above the dish. The device was mounted on a tilting stand, allowing it to be pointed in various directions, though not turned.

Unfortunately, Reber’s first two receivers failed to detect any signals from outer space, operating at 3300 MHz and (the second) at 900 MHz. His third, at 160 MHz was successfully tested in 1938. Two years later, Grote Reber made his first professional publication, in the Astrophysical Journal. Reber began to create a radiofrequency sky map, which he completed in 1941 and later extended it. Reber’s data published as contour maps showing the brightness of the sky in radio wavelengths, revealed the existence of radio sources such as Cygnus A and Cassiopeia A for the first time.

Black Body Radiation

During this time he uncovered a mystery that was not explained until the 1950s. The standard theory of radio emissions from space was that they were due to black-body radiation, light (of which radio is a non-visible form) that is given off by all hot bodies. Using this theory one would expect that there would be considerably more high-energy light than low-energy, due to the presence of stars and other hot bodies. However Reber demonstrated that the reverse was true, and that there was a considerable amount of low-energy radio signal. It was not until the 1950s that synchrotron radiation was offered as an explanation for these

Later Years

In the early 1950sReber received support from the Research Corporation in New York, and moved to HawaiiReber turned to the field of medium frequency (hectometre) radio signals in the 0.5—3 MHz range, around the AM broadcast bands. In 1954Reber moved to Tasmania, the southernmost state of Australia, where he worked with Bill Ellis at the University of Tasmania. In 1962, he was awarded a Honorary Doctor of Science degree from Ohio State University and received the Bruce Medal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific as well as the Henry Norris Russell Lectureship. In 1963 he was honored with the Elliott Cresson Medal of the Franklin Institute and in 1983 he received the Jackson-Gwilt Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. Reber spent his final days at the Ouse District Hospital, about 50 km northwest of Hobart, Tasmania, where he died in 2002, two days before his 91st birthday.

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