Radio Telescopes

Radio astronomy represents a relatively new branch of astronomy. It covers a frequency range from a few megahertz (100 m) up to frequencies of about 300 GHz (1 mm), thereby extending the observable electromagnetic spectrum by many orders of magnitude. The low-frequency limit of the radio band is determined by the opacity of the ionosphere, while the high-frequency limit is due to the strong absorption from oxygen and water bands in the lower atmosphere. Neither of these limits is very strict, and under favourable conditions radio astronomers can work into the submillimetre region or through ionospheric holes during sunspot minima.

At the beginning of the 20th century attempts were made to observe radio emission from the Sun. These experiments, however, failed because of the low sensitivity of the antenna-receiver systems, and because of the opaqueness of the ionosphere at the low frequencies at which most of the experiments were carried out. The first observations of cosmic radio emission were later made by the American engineer Karl G. Jansky in 1932, while studying thunderstorm radio disturbances at a frequency of 20.5 MHz (14.6 m). He discovered radio emission of unknown origin, which varied within a 24 hour period. Somewhat later he identified the source of this radiation to be in the direction of the centre of our Galaxy.

The real birth of radio astronomy may perhaps be dated to the late 1930's, when Grote Reber started systematic observations with his homemade 9.5 m paraboloid antenna. Thereafter radio astronomy developed quite rapidly and has greatly improved our knowledge of the Universe.

Observations are made both in the continuum (broad band) and in spectral lines (radio spectroscopy). Much of our knowledge about the structure of our Milky Way comes from radio observations of the 21 cm line of neutral hydrogen and, more recently, from the 2.6 mm line of the carbon monoxide molecule. Radio astronomy has resulted in many important discoveries; e. g. both pulsars and quasars were first found by radio astronomical observations. The importance of the field can also be seen from the fact that the Nobel prize in physics has recently been awarded twice to radio astronomers.

A radio telescope collects radiation in an aperture or antenna, from which it is transformed to an electric

signal by a receiver, called a radiometer. This signal is then amplified, detected and integrated, and the output is registered on some recording device, nowadays usually by a computer. Because the received signal is very weak, one has to use sensitive receivers. These are often cooled to minimize the noise, which could otherwise mask the signal from the source. Because radio waves are electromagnetic radiation, they are reflected and refracted like ordinary light waves. In radio astronomy, however, mostly reflecting telescopes are used.

At low frequencies the antennas are usually dipoles (similar to those used for radio or TV), but in order to increase the collecting area and improve the resolution, one uses dipole arrays, where all dipole elements are connected to each other.

The most common antenna type, however, is a parabolic reflector, which works exactly as an optical mirror telescope. At long wavelengths the reflecting surface does not need to be solid, because the long wavelength photons cannot see the holes in the reflector, and the antenna is therefore usually made in the form of a metal mesh. At high frequencies the surface has to be smooth, and in the millimetre-submillimetre range, radio astronomers even use large optical telescopes, which they equip with their own radiometers. To ensure a coherent amplification of the signal, the surface irregularities should be less than one-tenth of the wavelength used.

The main difference between a radio telescope and an optical telescope is in the recording of the signal. Radio telescopes are not imaging telescopes (except for synthesis telescopes, which will be described later); instead, a feed horn, which is located at the antenna focus, transfers the signal to a receiver. The wavelength and phase information is, however, preserved.

The resolving power of a radio telescope, 0, can be deduced from the same formula (3.4) as for optical telescopes, i.e. XfD, where X is the wavelength used and D is the diameter of the aperture. Since the wavelength ratio between radio and visible light is of the order of 10,000, radio antennas with diameters of several kilometres are needed in order to achieve the


Fig. 3.24. The largest radio telescope in the world is the a natural bowl and is 300 m in diameter. (Photo Arecibo Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico. It has been constructed over Observatory)

Fig. 3.25. The largest fully steerable radio telescope is in Green Bank, Virginia. Its diameter is 100 x 110 m. (Photo NRAO)

same resolution as for optical telescopes. In the early days of radio astronomy poor resolution was the biggest drawback for the development and recognition of radio astronomy. For example, the antenna used by Jansky had a fan beam with a resolution of about 30° in the narrower direction. Therefore radio observations could not be compared with optical observations. Neither was it possible to identify the radio sources with optical counterparts.

The world's biggest radio telescope is the Arecibo antenna in Puerto Rico, whose main reflector is fixed and built into a 305 m diameter, natural round valley covered by a metal mesh (Fig. 3.24). In the late 1970's the antenna surface and receivers were upgraded, enabling the antenna to be used down to wavelengths of 5 cm. The mirror of the Arecibo telescope is not parabolic but spherical, and the antenna is equipped with a movable feed system, which makes observations possible within a 20° radius around the zenith.

The biggest completely steerable radio telescope is the Green Bank telescope in Virginia, U.S.A., dedicated at the end of 2000. It is slightly asymmetric with a di ameter of 100 x 110 m (Fig. 3.25). Before the Green Bank telescope, for over two decades the largest telescope was the Effelsberg telescope in Germany. This antenna has a parabolic main reflector with a diameter of 100 m. The inner 80 m of the dish is made of solid aluminium panels, while the outmost portion of the disk is a metal mesh structure. By using only the inner portion of the telescope, it has been possible to observe down to wavelengths of 4 mm. The oldest and perhaps best-known big radio telescope is the 76 m antenna at Jodrell Bank in Britain, which was completed in the end of the 1950's.

The biggest telescopes are usually incapable of operating below wavelengths of 1 cm, because the surface cannot be made accurate enough. However, the millimetre range has become more and more important. In this wavelength range there are many transitions of interstellar molecules, and one can achieve quite high angular resolution even with a single dish telescope. At present, the typical size of a mirror of a millimetre telescope is about 15 m. The development of this field is rapid, and at present several big millimetre telescopes are in opera

Fig. 3.26. The 15 metre Maxwell submillimetre telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, is located in a dry climate at an altitude of 4100 m. Observations can be made down to wavelengths of 0.5 mm. (Photo Royal Observatory, Edinburgh)

Fig. 3.26. The 15 metre Maxwell submillimetre telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, is located in a dry climate at an altitude of 4100 m. Observations can be made down to wavelengths of 0.5 mm. (Photo Royal Observatory, Edinburgh)

tion (Table C.24). Among them are the 40 m Nobeyama telescope in Japan, which can be used down to 3 mm, the 30 m IRAM telescope at Pico Veleta in Spain, which is usable down to 1 mm, and the 15 m UK James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, operating down to 0.5 mm (Fig. 3.26). The largest project in the first decade of the 21st century is ALMA (Atacama Large Millimetre Array), which comprises of 50 telescopes with a diameter of 12 m (Fig. 3.27). It will be built as an international project by the United States, Europe and Japan.

As already mentioned, the resolving power of a radio telescope is far poorer than that of an optical telescope. The biggest radio telescopes can at present reach a resolution of 5 arc seconds, and that only at the very highest frequencies. To improve the resolution by increasing the size is difficult, because the present telescopes are already close to the practical upper limit. However, by combining radio telescopes and interferometers, it is possible to achieve even better resolution than with optical telescopes.

As early as 1891 Michelson used an interferometer for astronomical purposes. While the use of interferometers has proved to be quite difficult in the optical wavelength regime, interferometers are extremely useful in the radio region. To form an interferometer, one needs at least two antennas coupled together. The spacing between the antennas, D, is called the baseline. Let us first assume that the baseline is perpendicular to the line of sight (Fig. 3.28). Then the radiation arrives at

both antennas with the same phase, and the summed signal shows a maximum. However, due to the rotation of the Earth, the direction of the baseline changes, producing a phase difference between the two signals. The result is a sinusoidal interference pattern, in which minima occur when the phase difference is 180 degrees. The distance between the peaks is given by

Q D — X, where Q is the angle the baseline has turned and X is the wavelength of the received signal. The resolution of the interferometer is thus equal to that of an antenna with a linear size equal to D.

If the source is not a point source, the radiation emitted from different parts of the source will have phase differences when it enters the antennas. In this case the minima of the interference pattern will not be zero, but will have some positive value Pmin. If we denote the maximum value of the interference pattern by Pmax, the ratio

r max r min

Pm gives a measure of the source size (fringe visibility).

gives a measure of the source size (fringe visibility).

Fig. 3.28. The principle of an interferometer. If the radiation reaches the radio telescopes in the same phase, the waves amplify each other and a maximum is obtained in the combined radiation (cases 1 and 3). If the incoming waves are in opposite phase, they cancel each other (case 2)

More accurate information about the source structure can be obtained by changing the spacing between the antennas, i. e. by moving the antennas with respect to each other. If this is done, interferometry is transformed into a technique called aperture synthesis.

The theory and techniques of aperture synthesis were developed by the British astronomer Sir Martin Ryle. In Fig. 3.29 the principle of aperture synthesis is illustrated. If the telescopes are located on an east-west track, the spacing between them, projected onto the sky, will describe a circle or an ellipse, depending on the position of the source as the the Earth rotates around its axis. If one varies the distance between the telescopes, one will get a series of circles or ellipses on the sky during a 12 hour interval. As we can see from Fig. 3.29, one does not have to cover all the spacings between the telescopes, because any antenna combination which has the same relative distance will describe the same path on the sky. In this way one can synthesize an antenna, a filled aperture, with a size equal to the maximum spacing between the telescopes. Interferometers working according to this principle are called aperture synthesis telescopes. If one covers all the spacings up to the maximum baseline, the result will be an accurate map of the source over the primary beam of an individual antenna element. Aperture synthesis telescopes therefore produce an image of the sky, i.e. a "radio photograph".

A typical aperture synthesis telescope consists of one fixed telescope and a number of movable telescopes, usually located on an east-west track, although T or Y configurations are also quite common. The number of telescopes used determines how fast one can synthesize a larger disk, because the number of possible antenna combinations increases as n(n — 1), where n is the number of telescopes. It is also possible to synthesize a large telescope with only one fixed and one movable telescope by changing the spacing between the telescopes every 12 hours, but then a full aperture synthesis can require several months of observing time. In order for this technique to work, the source must be constant, i. e. the signal cannot be time variable during the observing session.

The most efficient aperture synthesis telescope at present is the VLA (Very Large Array) in New Mexico, USA (Fig. 3.30). It consists of 27 paraboloid antennas, each with a diameter of 25 m, which are located a)


Fig. 3.29a-c. To illustrate the principle of aperture synthesis, let us consider an east-west oriented interferometer pointed towards the celestial north. Each antenna is identical, has a diameter D and operates at a wavelength k. The minimum spacing between each antenna element is a, and the maximum spacing is 6a. In (a) there are only two antennas, A and B, displaced by the maximum spacing 6a. When the earth rotates, antennas A and B will, in the course of 12 hours, track a circle on the plane of the sky with a diameter k/(6a), the maximum resolution that can be achieved with this interferometer. In (b) the antenna C is added to the interferometer, thus providing two more baselines, which track the circles AC and BC with radii of k/(2a) and k/(4a), respectively. In (c) there is still another antenna D added to the interferometer. In this case two of the baselines are equal, AD and CD, and therefore only two new circles are covered on the plane of the sky. By adding more interferometer elements, one can fill in the missing parts within the primary beam, i. e. the beam of one single dish, and thus obtain a full coverage of the beam. It is also evident from (c), that not all of the antenna positions are needed to provide all the different spacings; some antenna spacings will in such a case be equal and therefore provide no additional information. Obtaining a full aperture synthesis with an east-west interferometer always takes 12 hours, if all spacings are available. Usually, however, several antenna elements are movable, in which case a full aperture synthesis can take a long time before all spacings are filled in on a Y-shaped track. The Y-formation was chosen because it provides a full aperture synthesis in 8 hours. Each antenna can be moved by a specially built carrier,

Fig. 3.30. The VLA at Socorro, New Mexico, is a synthesis telescope consisting of 27 movable antennas and the locations of the telescopes are chosen to give optimal spacings for each configuration. In the largest configuration each arm is about 21 km long, thereby resulting in an antenna with an effective diameter of 35 km. If the VLA is used in its largest configuration and at its highest frequency, 23 GHz (1.3 cm), the resolution achievedis0.1 arc second, clearly superior to any optical telescope. Similar resolution can also be obtained with the British MERLIN telescope, where already existing telescopes have been coupled together by radio links. Other well-known synthesis telescopes are the Cambridge 5 km array in Britain and the Westerbork array in the Netherlands, both located on east-west tracks.

Even higher resolution can be obtained with an extension of the aperture synthesis technique, called VLBI (Very Long Baseline Interferometry). With the VLBI technique the spacing between the antennas is restricted only by the size of the Earth. VLBI uses existing antennas (often on different continents), which are all pointed towards the same source. In this case the signal is recorded together with accurate timing signals from atomic clocks. The data files are correlated against each other, resulting in maps similar to those obtained with a normal aperture synthesis telescope. With VLBI techniques it is possible to achieve resolutions of 0.0001". Because interferometry is very sensitive to the distance between the telescopes, the VLBI technique also provides one of the most accurate methods to measure distances. Currently one can measure distances with an accuracy of a few centimetres on intercontinental baselines. This is utilized in geodetic VLBI experiments, which study continental drift and polar motion as a function of time.

In radio astronomy the maximum size of single antennas has also been reached. The trend is to build synthesis antennas, similar to the VLA in New Mexico. In the 1990's The United States built a chain of antennas extending across the whole continent, and the Australians have constructed a similar, but north-south antenna chain across their country.

More and more observations are being made in the submillimetre region. The disturbing effect of atmospheric water vapour becomes more serious at shorter wavelengths; thus, submillimetre telescopes must be lo-

cated on mountain tops, like optical telescopes. All parts of the mirror are actively controlled in order to accurately maintain the proper form like in the new optical telescopes. Several new submillimetre telescopes are under construction.

Telescopes Mastery

Telescopes Mastery

Through this ebook, you are going to learn what you will need to know all about the telescopes that can provide a fun and rewarding hobby for you and your family!

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment