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Grote Reber, the First Radio Astronomer

Grote Reber plaque

Grote Reber (1911-2002) was the first radio astronomer and the first astronomer to construct a high-altitude observatory in Hawaii. On May 15, in a memorial ceremony at IfA Manoa, the executor of Reber's estate presented some of Reber's ashes and a plaque to IfA Director Rolf Kudritzki. On May 16, they were placed in the roof of the Air Glow Building, part of which was Reber's original control room on Haleakala.

Reber received his degree in electrical engineering in 1933, about the same time that Karl Jansky discovered extraterrestrial radio signals that seemed to originate outside the solar system. Since Jansky did not follow up on this discovery—his employers were not interested in these faint signals—Reber decided to do so.

Reber was a fiercely independent man who wanted to do the kind of work the establishment was not interested in. About exploring radio signals from space, Reber said, "The astronomers were afraid of it because they didn't know anything about radio. The radio people weren't interested because it was so faint it didn't even constitute an interference. So, nobody was going to do anything. So, alright, if nobody was going to do anything, maybe I should do something. So I consulted with myself and decided to build a dish!"

Placing ashes on Haleakala
In May, astronomers Jeffrey Kuhn and J.D. Armstrong assisted with placing Grote Reber's ashes on Haleakala.

Reber constructed a dish in his backyard in Wheaton, Illinois (near Chicago). In 1938, Reber detected radio emission coming from the Milky Way, confirming Jansky's discovery. Radio astronomy was such a new field that when Reber sent his paper, "Cosmic Static," to the Astrophysical Journal (ApJ), that distinguished astronomy journal didn't know what to do with it. It was only after it had been published in an engineering journal that the ApJ published it in 1940.

In 1947, Reber accepted a position with the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C., but by 1951, he had become frustrated by the lack of support for building a large radio telescope. Interested in the sea interferometer technique being used by Australian radio astronomers, he went to Hawaii to work independently. From 1951 to 1954, he worked on building a rotating antenna on Haleakala. His observations were hampered by ionospheric refraction (bending) and terrestrial interference, so he obtained useful data for only a few strong radio sources. But ever curious about all kinds of natural phenomenon, while on Maui, he published papers on the ionosphere, the atmosphere, and the age of the lava flows on Haleakala.

In 1954, he moved from Hawaii to Tasmania, Australia, primarily because he expected the ionospheric transparency associated with the south magnetic pole would provide observing opportunities not available elsewhere. He concentrated on long wavelengths, and designed and built several arrays to study the emission and absorption of radio signals in our galaxy.