The Prince Albert Radar Laboratory
This first part of the history of the Prince Albert Radar Laboratory (PARL) is told by Del Hansen, who was Officer-In-Charge from near the beginning of planning until 1963. Al Seaman became Officer-In-Charge in 1963 and held the position until the Laboratory was temporarily moth balled in the summer of 1967. It was later transferred to another department to be used for other purposes.
The launching of the Russian Sputnik in October, 1957, caused a flurry of concern over North American security. If the Russians could launch a satellite, could they also launch an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) over the north-polar region and thus threaten the USA? That question led to another: How could one go about detecting such a rocket in time to take defensive action? Which in turn led to the question: Could such a missile be detected at all? The problem was the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. It can form a curtain of ionization that might mask the existence of a missile until that missile was well over the pole and on its way to the U.S.
The problem was the responsibility of the United States Air Force (USAF). They sought advice from Dr. Peter Forsyth, who then worked at the Defence Research Telecommunications Establishment (DRTE) located at Ottawa, Ontario. DRTE was part of the Defence Research Board or DRB, which in turn was part of the Department of National Defence.
Peter had done extensive research on the aurora while earning his PhD at the University of Saskatchewan, in Saskatoon. The following communication from Peter, on learning of the death of Bill Brown of the National Research Council (NRC) in 2001, describes some of his university experience:
"Thank you for sending me the notice regarding Bill Brown. I knew him for most of my career but never worked closely with him, although I believe he played an important part in one of my first enterprises. When Balfour Currie [Head of Physics at the University of Saskatchewan] and FTD [F.T. Davies: Superintendent of the Radio Propagation Laboratory] arranged for the nascent DRB to sponsor the transfer of two US radars to Canada for investigations of the auroral ionosphere, it was decided that one would be shipped directly to Saskatoon (all three freight cars-full) and the second would be shipped to NRC at Ottawa who would modify the frequency of operation from 106 Mc/s to 56 Mc/s. It was thought that there was a much better chance of receiving auroral echoes at 56 rather than 106 Mc/s. For their efforts, the NRC group would get to use it for a few months in their meteor program before shipping it, too, to Saskatoon. This was all accomplished, although, to everyone's surprise, we had already received undeniable auroral echoes on 106 Mc/s before the 56Mc/s set appeared. McKinley's crew at Ottawa effected the frequency change with flair and imagination -- the resulting set was, in many ways, better than the original. I have always understood that Bill Brown was responsible for the adaptation. I, with the help of a few wonderful people, turned the two radars into a single, dual frequency radar and milked my Ph.D. thesis out of it."
A meeting was arranged between Dr. Forsyth and representatives of the USAF at the Rome Air Development Centre at Rome, New York. Dr. Morton Lowenthal from Lincoln Laboratory (LL) of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was also present. The following is Peters account of that meeting.
"Regarding the origins of PARL, my involvement was much less than you imply. I do remember a meeting with the USAF, I think at Rome, N.Y. Certainly Mort [Lowenthal] was there, maybe Nate Gerson was also there. I was not there to do any planning. Apparently, I was there as an expert witness to tell them how hard it would be to detect ICBM's through aurora. Of course, I didn't know. The Canadian attitude seemed to be: Guess, but make it a very pessimistic guess. I think I said there wasn't any sound theoretical basis for saying that centimetre wavelengths would be scattered by aurora, but the same had been said about metre wavelengths before it was tried and there, clearly, was extensive scattering, so-o-o.... I left thinking I had persuaded the group to a joint, modest, quick experiment with a little radar from Saskatoon. The next I heard was the plan for setting up an independent radar lab with a really big dish."
As a consequence, a joint agreement between the governments of Canada and the United States was negotiated to install a large research radar in Canada. The U.S. was to provide the required equipment. Canada was to provide a suitable site, construct the required building and antenna silo, and install the antenna system. The U.S. agreed to install all other equipment. Canada would operate the facility. The agencies directly involved in the two countries were the Defence Research Board of Canada (DRB) and the United States Air Force (USAF). In Canada, responsibility was assigned to the Defence Research Telecommunications Establishment (DRTE), Ottawa; and in the U.S., to the Lincoln Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston.
Location, Location, Location
The requirements for the radars site were twofold.
- The site should permit the radar beam to illuminate the ionosphere over the Churchill, Manitoba region at the height at which the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) normally occurs. This would enable the comparison of auroral radar returns with simultaneous geophysical measurements made from Churchill.
- The site should be accessible to scientists from the Physics department of the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, where considerable expertise in auroral studies existed.
These two requirements meant that the radar would be somewhere in Saskatchewan.
Peter Forsyth was well acquainted with the region. He was born in Prince Albert, where his father was Warden of the Provincial Jail. (It was regular practice to temporarily move pregnant inmates out of jail so that the child would not suffer the stigma of having been born there. No such courtesy was extended to the Wardens wife. As a result, Peter has the distinction of having been born in jail.) Peter knew of one suitable area north and east of Prince Albert, at La Cole Falls (rapids).
Peter described the site search activity:
"Jack Hogarth was sent to survey all scientifically acceptable sites which could be acquired easily. I plumped for the army base at Dundurn [Saskatchewan] and, I think, Jack endorsed it. At the last minute Jack was urged to look for a site near Prince Albert, (I dont know whether I told him about the La Cole Falls site about 30 miles east of P.A., or whether he found it himself). Anyway, he also endorsed the La Cole site but noted some logistical problems with its use.
"These recommendations went up the ladder. We all know what came down. The Prime Minister wanted to know why the radar (whatever it is) could not be placed on some Crown land at Prince Albert. There followed a breathless ten microseconds while DRB made up its mind that there was no reason at all."
Dr. Jack Hogarth, who went on to become Professor of Physics at Queens University, added his recollections about how the site was chosen.
Jack was aware of the requirements involved in the establishment of the research radar, because he was then the DRB representative assigned to MIT/Lincoln Laboratory. Apparently the Millstone Hill radar was experiencing what were referred to as second round reflections from regions in the vicinity of James Bay. He said that some knowledgeable people from NRC were invited to come down and discuss these phenomena. It is not clear whether this was before or after Peter Forsyth met with the USAF representatives at Rome, NY.
A civil engineer from the University of Toronto named Carson Morrison, who had his own consulting company, was retained by DRB to help in the search for a site, and Jack was assigned to work with him. They first approached the Commanding Officer of the military base at Dundurn, probably at Peter Forsyths suggestion. The C.O. was totally opposed to locating the radar there. Jack didnt remember why, but does remember learning that the Commanding Officer, while flying back to Dundurn from somewhere in the Eastern part of Canada, was contacted while near North Bay and ordered to return to Ottawa to explain why he didn't want the radar at his station.
Then, as the Prime Minister got into the act, Jack and Morrison were sent to Prince Albert to search for a site. They rented a jeep and started looking, but quickly concluded that because of the scrubby trees that dominated the landscape, they were not going to get anywhere unless they took to the air. Jack said he contacted F.T. Davies (head of DRTE) in the afternoon and said they must have a helicopter to do the job. The helicopter was available the next morning. Ahthe advantages of doing things in the Prime Minister's riding.
From the air, they found a location about 12 miles west of Prince Albert that was somewhat higher than the surrounding terrain, and thus provided an unobstructed view of the horizon. A one-square-mile site at this location was chosen. A security fence was built around the area, and a road built from the centre of the site to the highway that passed near the northern perimeter. This site became PARL.
The Prince Albert area was thought to be suitable for a couple of reasons:
- Being in the Prime Ministers riding might enable the administrative wheels needed to establish the facility to turn more rapidly than might otherwise be the case.
- Although it was 120 miles from the University, the distance was not thought to be detrimental to the scientific activities that were to be conducted at PARL.
The first reason proved valid. The second, not quite so. The Prince Albert community had little to attract professional researchers apart from the PARL research facility.