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Scientists Tuning Very Large Array Radio Telescope for Deeper Exploration

The NSF's Very Large Array radio telescope is getting a digital makeover that will give it the sensitivity to pick up a cell phone signal on Jupiter, and to probe deeper into outer space



Courtesy of NRAO/AUI and Laure Wilson Neish

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is in the process of transforming its Very Large Array radio telescope into the—wait for it—Expanded Very Large Array, thanks to digital technology that will boost the Socorro, N.M., facility's already impressive ability to tune in on black holes, supernovae and the rest of the deep space menagerie.

Half of the Very Large Array's (VLA) 28 dish antennas—each weighing 230 tons—have already been upgraded so it can collect eight simultaneous data streams at about two giga- (billion) hertz, up from the previous capability of four data streams at about 50 mega- (million) hertz. The rest of the 28 antennas—which made their debut on the silver screen in the 1997 movie Contact, starring Jodie Foster and based on the eponymous Carl Sagan sci-fi novel—will go digital by 2012, increasing the facility's power 10-fold. The makeover will also replace original components that had been in operation since it was built in the 1970s.

"Certain objects radiate over a wide range of frequency," says Mark McKinnon, project manager for the Expanded VLA. "Improving the sensitivity of the telescope boils down to its bandwidth."

Completed in 1980 but operational before then, the VLA was behind the discoveries of water ice on Mercury; the complex region surrounding Sagittarius A*, the black hole at the core of the Milky Way galaxy; and it helped astronomers identify a distant galaxy already pumping out stars less than a billion years after the big bang.

The increased sensitivity and improved resolution of the EVLA will let scientists peer deep into star-forming clouds and spy on protoplanetary disks of dense gas surrounding young stars as well as track supernovae, fast-moving neutron stars and black holes, McKinnon says. The EVLA's receiving system will be sensitive enough to detect the weak radio transmission from a cell phone at the distance of Jupiter—half a billion miles away—at a projected cost of $94 million.

Data gathered by all 28 of the 82-foot- (25-meter-) diameter dish antennas are brought to a correlator—a central, special-purpose computer—which merges the input into a form that allows scientists to produce detailed, high-quality images of the astronomical objects under investigation. A new fiber-optic system replaces the older waveguide system for taking data collected by the receivers to the central control building and increases the amount of data that can be delivered from the antenna to the new $17-million correlator being built by Canadian scientists and engineers to handle the increased data flow.

In addition to its work for the NSF, the VLA site is also playing an important role in the development of another radio telescope, the Atacama Large Millimeter / submillimeter Array (ALMA). Started in 2003 and scheduled to be completed by 2012 in northern Chile's Atacama Desert at 16,500 feet (5,000 meters) above sea level, the facility employs more than 64 40-foot (12-meter) antennas. Scientists have been using the VLA site to test the performance of the dishes before they are installed at ALMA.

"The observations we make with the EVLA will be complementary with what they do at ALMA and at other radio telescopes," McKinnon adds. "Trying to understand astrophysical phenomena requires a multiwavelength approach."

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