Radio astronomers remove the blindfold

UK radio astronomers at the Jodrell Bank Observatory, working with colleagues from Europe and the USA, have demonstrated a new technique that will revolutionise the way they observe the stars.

In the past, to create the best quality images of the sky, astronomers routinely combined data from multiple telescopes from around the world – a technique called Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI).

They have now combined this with the power of dedicated internet resources to send data from all the telescopes to a special computer, to combine the observations in real-time (e-VLBI).

In conventional interferometry, radio astronomers have had to wait weeks or even months to see the results of their work as data tapes are shipped around the world to be combined at a central processing facility.

“Previously, we’ve been working in the dark, collecting data that we can’t see in its entirety until weeks later. Now using e-VLBI, we can process the observations taken at a number of locations around the world at once, in real time. In future, this technique will allow us to take much better images than previously possible, revealing in much greater detail the Universe around us,” explained Professor Phil Diamond, of Jodrell Bank Observatory.

e-VLBI uses new dedicated internet networks in the participating countries, so that data from all the telescopes can be relayed rapidly to a centre in the Netherlands where the data are combined and sent back to the astronomers, who then produce the images.

Using the new technique, radio astronomers will not only be able to see deeper into the distant Universe, they’ll be able to capture unpredictable, transient events as they happen, reliably and quickly.