Interference Can Be a Good Thing

There is a way to overcome the low angular resolution due to the size of radio waves: link together a lot of smaller telescopes so they act like one giant telescope. A radio interferometer is a combination of two or more radio telescopes linked together electronically to form a kind of virtual dish, an array of antennas that acts like one gigantic antenna. It is as if we had small pieces of a very large optical telescope (imagine a giant mirror with a lot of its surface area punched out), so that while an interferometer has the resolution of a very large telescope, it does not have the surface area or sensitivity to faint sources of a truly gigantic telescope.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) maintains and operates the Very Large Array (VLA) interferometer on a vast plain near Socorro, New Mexico, consisting of 27 large dishes arrayed on railroad tracks in a Y-shaped pattern. Each arm is 12.4 miles (20 km) long, and the largest distance between 2 of the antennas is 21.7 miles (35 km). As a result, the VLA has the resolving power of a radio telescope 21.7 miles across. The VLA recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary.

The Green Bank Telescope, dedicated August 2000.

(Image from NRAO/AUI)

Star Words

Very Long Baseline Interfer-ometry (VLBI) links radio telescopes distant from one another in order to achieve with milliarc-second (0.001") resolution images.

Star Words

Very Long Baseline Interfer-ometry (VLBI) links radio telescopes distant from one another in order to achieve with milliarc-second (0.001") resolution images.

For radio astronomers who want something even larger than "very large," there is Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), which can link radio telescopes in different parts of the world to achieve incredible angular resolutions better than a thousandth of an arcsecond (.001"). From its offices in Socorro, New Mexico, the NRAO also operates the VLBA (Very Long Baseline Array), which consists of 10 radio dishes scattered over the United States, from Mauna Kea, Hawaii, to St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. In 1996, Japanese astronomers launched into Earth's orbit a radio telescope to be used in conjunction with the ground based telescopes in order to achieve the resolution of a telescope larger than the earth itself. For more information, see www.nrao.edu.

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