Wednesday, 22 April 2009

UK radio 'superscope' gets first signals from space

A super-powerful new radio telescope network - which will allow astronomers to carry out three years worth of observations in a single day - has received its first signals from space at the University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Observatory.

Engineers and astronomers at the famous Cheshire site have seen 'first light' with e-MERLIN, successfully processing signals from two of the telescopes in the seven-telescope network.

e-MERLIN is designed to make detailed radio images of stars and galaxies using seven telescopes spread up to 217 km apart across the UK.The radio signals collected by the telescopes are brought back to Jodrell Bank using 600 km of high-speed optical fibre cables laid by Fujitsu UK and operated by Global Crossing.

Professor Simon Garrington, Director of e-MERLIN, said:

"The new optical fibre network, together with new electronics at each telescope and a powerful new 'correlator' which combines the signals at Jodrell Bank, will make the telescope one of the most powerful of its type in the world.

"The e-MERLIN fibre network will carry as much data as the rest of the UK Internet combined, enabling astronomers to see in a single day what would have previously taken us three years of observations."

e-MERLIN is the UK's national facility for radio astronomy. Its combination of widely separated telescopes provides astronomers with a powerful "zoom lens" with which they can study details of astronomical events out towards the edge of the observable universe.

Once fully functional in early 2010, e-MERLIN's unique combination of sharpness of view and sensitivity will allow astronomers to address key questions relating to the origin and evolution of galaxies, stars and planets.

Following a call for proposals which was answered by 325 astronomers from over 100 institutes in more than 20 countries, the first major scientific legacy projects to be carried out by e-MERLIN have now been decided.

These include the study of star birth and death in our own galaxy and, looking back in time, in very distant galaxies; investigating the regions around supermassive black holes at the hearts of galaxies; tracking pulsars (the collapsed cores of exploded stars); and searching for young planets forming around nearby stars.

Dr Tom Muxlow of the University of Manchester is the lead scientist on a project to study the evolution of galaxies. He said:

"e-MERLIN will give us our first truly reliable view of the distribution of star-formation within typical galaxies at the epoch where the bulk of the stars in the present-day Universe were being formed."

The correlator (a powerful special-purpose computer) has been built by Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory (DRAO) in Penticton, Canada. The e-MERLIN project has benefited from close collaboration with both DRAO and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in the USA, who are undertaking a similar upgrade of the Very Large Array.

e-MERLIN is funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the Northwest Development Agency (NWDA), The University of Manchester, the University of Cambridge and Liverpool John Moores University.

Professor Alan Gilbert, President and Vice Chancellor of The University of Manchester said:

"This is a tremendous achievement on the part of the staff of the University's Jodrell Bank Observatory and its partners.

"e-MERLIN is a truly collaborative effort and it would not have been possible to get to this stage without funding provided by the NWDA, the STFC and our university collaborators at Cambridge and Liverpool John Moores.

"I look forward to seeing e-MERLIN taking its place as one of the world's leading astronomical facilities over the coming decade."

Professor John Womersley, Director of Science Programmes at the Science and Technology Facilities Council, said:

"This is an important first step in realising the scientific potential offered by the e-MERLIN project, which will allow us to see the radio sky in unprecedented detail.

"For the longer term, completion of e-MERLIN is an important step for UK astronomers and technologists, who are playing a significant role in future international radio astronomy facilities, including the proposed Square Kilometre Array."

Steven Broomhead, Chief Executive at the Northwest Regional Development Agency said:

"England's Northwest is widely recognised as a leading region for world-class scientific achievement, based on a talented and skilled workforce driven by innovation and enterprise.

"The e-MERLIN project is a clear demonstration of the region's expertise and will help to inspire the next generation of our scientists and engineers."