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Astronomy

6.4 Radio Telescopes

Astronomy6.4 Radio Telescopes
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  1. Preface
  2. 1 Science and the Universe: A Brief Tour
    1. Introduction
    2. 1.1 The Nature of Astronomy
    3. 1.2 The Nature of Science
    4. 1.3 The Laws of Nature
    5. 1.4 Numbers in Astronomy
    6. 1.5 Consequences of Light Travel Time
    7. 1.6 A Tour of the Universe
    8. 1.7 The Universe on the Large Scale
    9. 1.8 The Universe of the Very Small
    10. 1.9 A Conclusion and a Beginning
    11. For Further Exploration
  3. 2 Observing the Sky: The Birth of Astronomy
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 2.1 The Sky Above
    3. 2.2 Ancient Astronomy
    4. 2.3 Astrology and Astronomy
    5. 2.4 The Birth of Modern Astronomy
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  4. 3 Orbits and Gravity
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 3.1 The Laws of Planetary Motion
    3. 3.2 Newton’s Great Synthesis
    4. 3.3 Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation
    5. 3.4 Orbits in the Solar System
    6. 3.5 Motions of Satellites and Spacecraft
    7. 3.6 Gravity with More Than Two Bodies
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  5. 4 Earth, Moon, and Sky
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 4.1 Earth and Sky
    3. 4.2 The Seasons
    4. 4.3 Keeping Time
    5. 4.4 The Calendar
    6. 4.5 Phases and Motions of the Moon
    7. 4.6 Ocean Tides and the Moon
    8. 4.7 Eclipses of the Sun and Moon
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  6. 5 Radiation and Spectra
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 5.1 The Behavior of Light
    3. 5.2 The Electromagnetic Spectrum
    4. 5.3 Spectroscopy in Astronomy
    5. 5.4 The Structure of the Atom
    6. 5.5 Formation of Spectral Lines
    7. 5.6 The Doppler Effect
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  7. 6 Astronomical Instruments
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 6.1 Telescopes
    3. 6.2 Telescopes Today
    4. 6.3 Visible-Light Detectors and Instruments
    5. 6.4 Radio Telescopes
    6. 6.5 Observations outside Earth’s Atmosphere
    7. 6.6 The Future of Large Telescopes
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  8. 7 Other Worlds: An Introduction to the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 7.1 Overview of Our Planetary System
    3. 7.2 Composition and Structure of Planets
    4. 7.3 Dating Planetary Surfaces
    5. 7.4 Origin of the Solar System
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  9. 8 Earth as a Planet
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 8.1 The Global Perspective
    3. 8.2 Earth’s Crust
    4. 8.3 Earth’s Atmosphere
    5. 8.4 Life, Chemical Evolution, and Climate Change
    6. 8.5 Cosmic Influences on the Evolution of Earth
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  10. 9 Cratered Worlds
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 9.1 General Properties of the Moon
    3. 9.2 The Lunar Surface
    4. 9.3 Impact Craters
    5. 9.4 The Origin of the Moon
    6. 9.5 Mercury
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  11. 10 Earthlike Planets: Venus and Mars
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 10.1 The Nearest Planets: An Overview
    3. 10.2 The Geology of Venus
    4. 10.3 The Massive Atmosphere of Venus
    5. 10.4 The Geology of Mars
    6. 10.5 Water and Life on Mars
    7. 10.6 Divergent Planetary Evolution
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  12. 11 The Giant Planets
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 11.1 Exploring the Outer Planets
    3. 11.2 The Giant Planets
    4. 11.3 Atmospheres of the Giant Planets
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. For Further Exploration
    8. Collaborative Group Activities
    9. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  13. 12 Rings, Moons, and Pluto
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 12.1 Ring and Moon Systems Introduced
    3. 12.2 The Galilean Moons of Jupiter
    4. 12.3 Titan and Triton
    5. 12.4 Pluto and Charon
    6. 12.5 Planetary Rings
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  14. 13 Comets and Asteroids: Debris of the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 13.1 Asteroids
    3. 13.2 Asteroids and Planetary Defense
    4. 13.3 The “Long-Haired” Comets
    5. 13.4 The Origin and Fate of Comets and Related Objects
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  15. 14 Cosmic Samples and the Origin of the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 14.1 Meteors
    3. 14.2 Meteorites: Stones from Heaven
    4. 14.3 Formation of the Solar System
    5. 14.4 Comparison with Other Planetary Systems
    6. 14.5 Planetary Evolution
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  16. 15 The Sun: A Garden-Variety Star
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 15.1 The Structure and Composition of the Sun
    3. 15.2 The Solar Cycle
    4. 15.3 Solar Activity above the Photosphere
    5. 15.4 Space Weather
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  17. 16 The Sun: A Nuclear Powerhouse
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 16.1 Sources of Sunshine: Thermal and Gravitational Energy
    3. 16.2 Mass, Energy, and the Theory of Relativity
    4. 16.3 The Solar Interior: Theory
    5. 16.4 The Solar Interior: Observations
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  18. 17 Analyzing Starlight
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 17.1 The Brightness of Stars
    3. 17.2 Colors of Stars
    4. 17.3 The Spectra of Stars (and Brown Dwarfs)
    5. 17.4 Using Spectra to Measure Stellar Radius, Composition, and Motion
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  19. 18 The Stars: A Celestial Census
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 18.1 A Stellar Census
    3. 18.2 Measuring Stellar Masses
    4. 18.3 Diameters of Stars
    5. 18.4 The H–R Diagram
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  20. 19 Celestial Distances
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 19.1 Fundamental Units of Distance
    3. 19.2 Surveying the Stars
    4. 19.3 Variable Stars: One Key to Cosmic Distances
    5. 19.4 The H–R Diagram and Cosmic Distances
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  21. 20 Between the Stars: Gas and Dust in Space
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 20.1 The Interstellar Medium
    3. 20.2 Interstellar Gas
    4. 20.3 Cosmic Dust
    5. 20.4 Cosmic Rays
    6. 20.5 The Life Cycle of Cosmic Material
    7. 20.6 Interstellar Matter around the Sun
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  22. 21 The Birth of Stars and the Discovery of Planets outside the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 21.1 Star Formation
    3. 21.2 The H–R Diagram and the Study of Stellar Evolution
    4. 21.3 Evidence That Planets Form around Other Stars
    5. 21.4 Planets beyond the Solar System: Search and Discovery
    6. 21.5 Exoplanets Everywhere: What We Are Learning
    7. 21.6 New Perspectives on Planet Formation
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  23. 22 Stars from Adolescence to Old Age
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 22.1 Evolution from the Main Sequence to Red Giants
    3. 22.2 Star Clusters
    4. 22.3 Checking Out the Theory
    5. 22.4 Further Evolution of Stars
    6. 22.5 The Evolution of More Massive Stars
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  24. 23 The Death of Stars
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 23.1 The Death of Low-Mass Stars
    3. 23.2 Evolution of Massive Stars: An Explosive Finish
    4. 23.3 Supernova Observations
    5. 23.4 Pulsars and the Discovery of Neutron Stars
    6. 23.5 The Evolution of Binary Star Systems
    7. 23.6 The Mystery of the Gamma-Ray Bursts
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  25. 24 Black Holes and Curved Spacetime
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 24.1 Introducing General Relativity
    3. 24.2 Spacetime and Gravity
    4. 24.3 Tests of General Relativity
    5. 24.4 Time in General Relativity
    6. 24.5 Black Holes
    7. 24.6 Evidence for Black Holes
    8. 24.7 Gravitational Wave Astronomy
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  26. 25 The Milky Way Galaxy
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 25.1 The Architecture of the Galaxy
    3. 25.2 Spiral Structure
    4. 25.3 The Mass of the Galaxy
    5. 25.4 The Center of the Galaxy
    6. 25.5 Stellar Populations in the Galaxy
    7. 25.6 The Formation of the Galaxy
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  27. 26 Galaxies
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 26.1 The Discovery of Galaxies
    3. 26.2 Types of Galaxies
    4. 26.3 Properties of Galaxies
    5. 26.4 The Extragalactic Distance Scale
    6. 26.5 The Expanding Universe
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  28. 27 Active Galaxies, Quasars, and Supermassive Black Holes
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 27.1 Quasars
    3. 27.2 Supermassive Black Holes: What Quasars Really Are
    4. 27.3 Quasars as Probes of Evolution in the Universe
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. For Further Exploration
    8. Collaborative Group Activities
    9. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  29. 28 The Evolution and Distribution of Galaxies
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 28.1 Observations of Distant Galaxies
    3. 28.2 Galaxy Mergers and Active Galactic Nuclei
    4. 28.3 The Distribution of Galaxies in Space
    5. 28.4 The Challenge of Dark Matter
    6. 28.5 The Formation and Evolution of Galaxies and Structure in the Universe
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  30. 29 The Big Bang
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 29.1 The Age of the Universe
    3. 29.2 A Model of the Universe
    4. 29.3 The Beginning of the Universe
    5. 29.4 The Cosmic Microwave Background
    6. 29.5 What Is the Universe Really Made Of?
    7. 29.6 The Inflationary Universe
    8. 29.7 The Anthropic Principle
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  31. 30 Life in the Universe
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 30.1 The Cosmic Context for Life
    3. 30.2 Astrobiology
    4. 30.3 Searching for Life beyond Earth
    5. 30.4 The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  32. A | How to Study for an Introductory Astronomy Class
  33. B | Astronomy Websites, Images, and Apps
  34. C | Scientific Notation
  35. D | Units Used in Science
  36. E | Some Useful Constants for Astronomy
  37. F | Physical and Orbital Data for the Planets
  38. G | Selected Moons of the Planets
  39. H | Future Total Eclipses
  40. I | The Nearest Stars, Brown Dwarfs, and White Dwarfs
  41. J | The Brightest Twenty Stars
  42. K | The Chemical Elements
  43. L | The Constellations
  44. M | Star Chart and Sky Event Resources
  45. Index

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe how radio waves from space are detected
  • Identify the world’s largest radio telescopes
  • Define the technique of interferometry and discuss the benefits of interferometers over single-dish telescopes

In addition to visible and infrared radiation, radio waves from astronomical objects can also be detected from the surface of Earth. In the early 1930s, Karl G. Jansky, an engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories, was experimenting with antennas for long-range radio communication when he encountered some mysterious static—radio radiation coming from an unknown source (Figure 6.17). He discovered that this radiation came in strongest about four minutes earlier on each successive day and correctly concluded that since Earth’s sidereal rotation period (how long it takes us to rotate relative to the stars) is four minutes shorter than a solar day, the radiation must be originating from some region fixed on the celestial sphere. Subsequent investigation showed that the source of this radiation was part of the Milky Way Galaxy; Jansky had discovered the first source of cosmic radio waves.

Photograph of Jensky and his model.
Figure 6.17 First Radio Telescope. This rotating radio antenna was used by Jansky in his serendipitous discovery of radio radiation from the Milky Way.

In 1936, Grote Reber, who was an amateur astronomer interested in radio communications, used galvanized iron and wood to build the first antenna specifically designed to receive cosmic radio waves. Over the years, Reber built several such antennas and used them to carry out pioneering surveys of the sky for celestial radio sources; he remained active in radio astronomy for more than 30 years. During the first decade, he worked practically alone because professional astronomers had not yet recognized the vast potential of radio astronomy.

Detection of Radio Energy from Space

It is important to understand that radio waves cannot be “heard”: they are not the sound waves you hear coming out of the radio receiver in your home or car. Like light, radio waves are a form of electromagnetic radiation, but unlike light, we cannot detect them with our senses—we must rely on electronic equipment to pick them up. In commercial radio broadcasting, we encode sound information (music or a newscaster’s voice) into radio waves. These must be decoded at the other end and then turned back into sound by speakers or headphones.

The radio waves we receive from space do not, of course, have music or other program information encoded in them. If cosmic radio signals were translated into sound, they would sound like the static you hear when scanning between stations. Nevertheless, there is information in the radio waves we receive—information that can tell us about the chemistry and physical conditions of the sources of the waves.

Just as vibrating charged particles can produce electromagnetic waves (see the Radiation and Spectra chapter), electromagnetic waves can make charged particles move back and forth. Radio waves can produce a current in conductors of electricity such as metals. An antenna is such a conductor: it intercepts radio waves, which create a feeble current in it. The current is then amplified in a radio receiver until it is strong enough to measure or record. Like your television or radio, receivers can be tuned to select a single frequency (channel). In astronomy, however, it is more common to use sophisticated data-processing techniques that allow thousands of separate frequency bands to be detected simultaneously. Thus, the astronomical radio receiver operates much like a spectrometer on a visible-light or infrared telescope, providing information about how much radiation we receive at each wavelength or frequency. After computer processing, the radio signals are recorded on magnetic disks for further analysis.

Radio waves are reflected by conducting surfaces, just as light is reflected from a shiny metallic surface, and according to the same laws of optics. A radio-reflecting telescope consists of a concave metal reflector (called a dish), analogous to a telescope mirror. The radio waves collected by the dish are reflected to a focus, where they can then be directed to a receiver and analyzed. Because humans are such visual creatures, radio astronomers often construct a pictorial representation of the radio sources they observe. Figure 6.18 shows such a radio image of a distant galaxy, where radio telescopes reveal vast jets and complicated regions of radio emissions that are completely invisible in photographs taken with light.

False color radio image of galaxy Cygnus A. This image shows two huge, diffuse clouds (lobes) of hot gas on either side of the galaxy. Thin jets of material are also seen, one on each side, connecting the galaxy to the lobes. The lobes are shown in three colors corresponding to the intensity of the radio energy detected. Blue is least intense and is concentrated in the regions of the lobes closest to the galaxy. Green is next and is located near the center and far edges of the lobes. Finally red is the most intense and is found at the edges of the lobes farthest from the galaxy.
Figure 6.18 Radio Image. This image has been constructed of radio observations at the Very Large Array of a galaxy called Cygnus A. Colors have been added to help the eye sort out regions of different radio intensities. Red regions are the most intense, blue the least. The visible galaxy would be a small dot in the center of the image. The radio image reveals jets of expelled material (more than 160,000 light-years long) on either side of the galaxy. (credit: NRAO/AUI)

Radio astronomy is a young field compared with visible-light astronomy, but it has experienced tremendous growth in recent decades. The world’s largest radio reflectors that can be pointed to any direction in the sky have apertures of 100 meters. One of these has been built at the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory in West Virginia (Figure 6.19). Table 6.2 lists some of the major radio telescopes of the world.

Photograph of the Robert C. Byrd radio telescope at Green Bank, West Virginia.
Figure 6.19 Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope. This fully steerable radio telescope in West Virginia went into operation in August 2000. Its dish is about 100 meters across. (credit: modification of work by “b3nscott”/Flickr)
Major Radio Observatories of the World
Observatory Location Description Website
Individual Radio Dishes
Arecibo Observatory Arecibo, Puerto Rico 305-m fixed dish www.naic.edu
Green Bank Telescope (GBT) Green Bank, WV 110 × 100-m steerable dish www.science.nrao.edu/facilities/gbt
Effelsberg 100-m Telescope Bonn, Germany 100-m steerable dish www.mpifr-bonn.mpg.de/en/effelsberg
Lovell Telescope Manchester, England 76-m steerable dish www.jb.man.ac.uk/aboutus/lovell
Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC) Tidbinbilla, Australia 70-m steerable dish www.cdscc.nasa.gov
Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex (GDSCC) Barstow, CA 70-m steerable dish www.gdscc.nasa.gov
Parkes Observatory Parkes, Australia 64-m steerable dish www.parkes.atnf.csiro.au
Arrays of Radio Dishes
Square Kilometre Array (SKA) South Africa and Western Australia Thousands of dishes, km2 collecting area, partial array in 2020 www.skatelescope.org
Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) Atacama desert, Northern Chile 66 7-m and 12-m dishes www.almaobservatory.org
Very Large Array (VLA) Socorro, New Mexico 27-element array of 25-m dishes (36-km baseline) www.science.nrao.edu/facilities/vla
Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope (WSRT) Westerbork, the Netherlands 12-element array of 25-m dishes (1.6-km baseline) www.astron.nl/radio-observatory/public/public-0
Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) Ten US sites, HI to the Virgin Islands 10-element array of 25-m dishes (9000 km baseline) www.science.nrao.edu/facilities/vlba
Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) Several sites in Australia 8-element array (seven 22-m dishes plus Parkes 64 m) www.narrabri.atnf.csiro.au
Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network (MERLIN) Cambridge, England, and other British sites Network of seven dishes (the largest is 32 m) www.e-merlin.ac.uk
Millimeter-wave Telescopes
IRAM Granada, Spain 30-m steerable mm-wave dish www.iram-institute.org
James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) Mauna Kea, HI 15-m steerable mm-wave dish www.eaobservatory.org/jcmt
Nobeyama Radio Observatory (NRO) Minamimaki, Japan 6-element array of 10-m wave dishes www.nro.nao.ac.jp/en
Hat Creek Radio Observatory (HCRO) Cassel, CA 6-element array of 5-m wave dishes www.sri.com/research-development/specialized-facilities/hat-creek-radio-observatory
Table 6.2

Radio Interferometry

As we discussed earlier, a telescope’s ability to show us fine detail (its resolution) depends upon its aperture, but it also depends upon the wavelength of the radiation that the telescope is gathering. The longer the waves, the harder it is to resolve fine detail in the images or maps we make. Because radio waves have such long wavelengths, they present tremendous challenges for astronomers who need good resolution. In fact, even the largest radio dishes on Earth, operating alone, cannot make out as much detail as the typical small visible-light telescope used in a college astronomy lab. To overcome this difficulty, radio astronomers have learned to sharpen their images by linking two or more radio telescopes together electronically. Two or more telescopes linked together in this way are called an interferometer.

“Interferometer” may seem like a strange term because the telescopes in an interferometer work cooperatively; they don’t “interfere” with each other. Interference, however, is a technical term for the way that multiple waves interact with each other when they arrive in our instruments, and this interaction allows us to coax more detail out of our observations. The resolution of an interferometer depends upon the separation of the telescopes, not upon their individual apertures. Two telescopes separated by 1 kilometer provide the same resolution as would a single dish 1 kilometer across (although they are not, of course, able to collect as much radiation as a radio-wave bucket that is 1 kilometer across).

To get even better resolution, astronomers combine a large number of radio dishes into an interferometer array. In effect, such an array works like a large number of two-dish interferometers, all observing the same part of the sky together. Computer processing of the results permits the reconstruction of a high-resolution radio image. The most extensive such instrument in the United States is the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array (VLA) near Socorro, New Mexico. It consists of 27 movable radio telescopes (on railroad tracks), each having an aperture of 25 meters, spread over a total span of about 36 kilometers. By electronically combining the signals from all of its individual telescopes, this array permits the radio astronomer to make pictures of the sky at radio wavelengths comparable to those obtained with a visible-light telescope, with a resolution of about 1 arcsecond.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter array (ALMA) in the Atacama Desert of Northern Chile (Figure 6.20), at an altitude of 16,400 feet, consists of 12 7-meter and 54 12-meter telescopes, and can achieve baselines up to 16 kilometers. Since it became operational in 2013, it has made observations at resolutions down to 6 milliarcseconds (0.006 arcseconds), a remarkable achievement for radio astronomy.

Photograph of the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile, taken at night. Many of the telescopes are seen pointing in various directions, with the Moon and Milky Way prominent in the background sky.
Figure 6.20 Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA). Located in the Atacama Desert of Northern Chile, ALMA currently provides the highest resolution for radio observations. (credit: ESO/S. Guisard)

Initially, the size of interferometer arrays was limited by the requirement that all of the dishes be physically wired together. The maximum dimensions of the array were thus only a few tens of kilometers. However, larger interferometer separations can be achieved if the telescopes do not require a physical connection. Astronomers, with the use of current technology and computing power, have learned to time the arrival of electromagnetic waves coming from space very precisely at each telescope and combine the data later. If the telescopes are as far apart as California and Australia, or as West Virginia and Crimea in Ukraine, the resulting resolution far surpasses that of visible-light telescopes.

The United States operates the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), made up of 10 individual telescopes stretching from the Virgin Islands to Hawaii (Figure 6.21). The VLBA, completed in 1993, can form astronomical images with a resolution of 0.0001 arcseconds, permitting features as small as 10 astronomical units (AU) to be distinguished at the center of our Galaxy.

Diagram of the Very Long Baseline Array. The image shows the Northern Hemisphere of Earth centered on North America. Icons of radio antennas are shown distributed throughout the continental United States, as well as on Hawai’i and Puerto Rico.
Figure 6.21 Very Long Baseline Array. This map shows the distribution of 10 antennas that constitute an array of radio telescopes stretching across the United States and its territories.

Recent advances in technology have also made it possible to do interferometry at visible-light and infrared wavelengths. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, three observatories with multiple telescopes each began using their dishes as interferometers, combining their light to obtain a much greater resolution. In addition, a dedicated interferometric array was built on Mt. Wilson in California. Just as in radio arrays, these observations allow astronomers to make out more detail than a single telescope could provide.

Visible-Light Interferometers
Longest Baseline (m) Telescope Name Location Mirrors Status
400 CHARA Array (Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy) Mount Wilson, CA Six 1-m telescopes Operational since 2004
200 Very Large Telescope Cerro Paranal, Chile Four 8.2-m telescopes Completed 2000
85 Keck I and II telescopes Mauna Kea, HI Two 10-m telescopes Operated from 2001 to 2012
22.8 Large Binocular Telescope Mount Graham, AZ Two 8.4-m telescopes First light 2004
Table 6.3

Radar Astronomy

Radar is the technique of transmitting radio waves to an object in our solar system and then detecting the radio radiation that the object reflects back. The time required for the round trip can be measured electronically with great precision. Because we know the speed at which radio waves travel (the speed of light), we can determine the distance to the object or a particular feature on its surface (such as a mountain).

Radar observations have been used to determine the distances to planets and how fast things are moving in the solar system (using the Doppler effect, discussed in the Radiation and Spectra chapter). Radar waves have played important roles in navigating spacecraft throughout the solar system. In addition, as will be discussed in later chapters, radar observations have determined the rotation periods of Venus and Mercury, probed tiny Earth-approaching asteroids, and allowed us to investigate the mountains and valleys on the surfaces of Mercury, Venus, Mars, and the large moons of Jupiter.

Any radio dish can be used as a radar telescope if it is equipped with a powerful transmitter as well as a receiver. The most spectacular facility in the world for radar astronomy is the 1000-foot (305-meter) telescope at Arecibo in Puerto Rico (Figure 6.22). The Arecibo telescope is too large to be pointed directly at different parts of the sky. Instead, it is constructed in a huge natural “bowl” (more than a mere dish) formed by several hills, and it is lined with reflecting metal panels. A limited ability to track astronomical sources is achieved by moving the receiver system, which is suspended on cables 100 meters above the surface of the bowl. An even larger (500-meter) radar telescope is currently under construction. It is the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in China and is expected to be completed in 2016.

Photograph of Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, seen from above. The huge 1000-ft metal dish is built into a natural depression in the mountains.
Figure 6.22 Largest Radio and Radar Dish. The Arecibo Observatory, with its 1000-foot radio dish-filling valley in Puerto Rico, is part of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, operated by SRI International, USRA, and UMET under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation. (credit: National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, Cornell U., NSF)
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