Seeing further with fibre

Fujitsu Telecommunications Europe has won a multi-million pound contract to supply new long-distance optical fibre links for the e-MERLIN large-array radio astronomy project.

Fujitsu Telecommunications Europe has won a multi-million pound contract to supply long-distance optical fibre links for the University of Manchester’s e-MERLIN project.

This aim of the project is to connect the university’s radio telescope at Jodrell Bank with five other radio telescopes around the UK to form a single, large-array telescope capable of achieving previously unattainable sensitivity for this type of high resolution array. It will also be the first time that an array has been connected using a national multi-Gigabit/sec fibre network.

The e-MERLIN project will upgrade the existing microwave links that network the 76-metre Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank with those smaller dishes at Cambridge, Great Malvern, Pickmere and Darnhall in Cheshire, and near Oswestry in Shropshire.

Fujitsu’s contribution to the project includes the trench-laying of some 90km of new fibre. This will link the remote telescope sites to a dark-fibre backbone and allow data from the telescopes to be collected at a rate of 150Gbit/sec per second – five times the average traffic of the entire UK Internet!

It is this huge data rate that will give e-MERLIN its unprecedented sensitivity. Together with the high angular resolution provided by the 217km separation between the telescopes, it will have the capability of resolving radio images from the faintest, and most distant, galaxies and stellar bodies, as a result of increasing the sensitivity of the existing microwave-linked MERLIN network by a factor of more than 30.

The e-MERLIN project represents something of a scientific breakthrough – it will be the world’s longest-baseline, permanently connected radio telescope array with this immense bandwidth, which is only achievable by deploying fibre to network the individual telescopes. The e-MERLIN network will perform, on a much larger scale, the equivalent function of Jodrell Bank’s 76-metre Lovell Telescope.

‘The Lovell’s huge dish reflects radio waves to a focal point, whereas the new network will collect data from all the telescopes, and deliver the signals to the common focus of our data correlator,’ explained Simon Garrington of Jodrell Bank Observatory, the e-MERLIN project manager.

The e-MERLIN project is being funded by The University of Manchester, the Northwest Development Agency, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), UMIST and The University of Cambridge. The capital funding for the whole project is £7.6 million.

MERLIN and e-MERLIN are operated by The University of Manchester on behalf of PPARC.