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Headlines Published on 26 November 2007

Title Focusing telescopes

Who are we? What is the nature of the universe? These are questions that have intrigued mankind since almost the dawn of time. Astronomers around the world point their telescopes into the sky hoping to catch a glimpse of the nature of the universe and with any luck reveal how it all began. Now a joint project that involves four of Europe's largest radio astronomy facilities will focus their energies and telescopes to scan the night skies to in order to answer these questions and many more.

The Jodrell Bank Observatory. Lovell telescope
The Jodrell Bank Observatory. Lovell telescope

Radio astronomy is a relatively new discipline in the field of astronomy and its early pioneers can be traced back to the 1940s. Yet in such a small time it has made great leaps and bounds in academic research. Radio astronomy differs from its more traditional counterpart of optical astronomy in that it utilises naturally occurring radio emission from stars, galaxies, quasars, and other astronomical objects between wavelengths of about 10 metres (30 megahertz [MHz]) and 1 millimetre (300 gigahertz [GHz]).

Now, through the EU's Express Production Real-time eVLBI Service (EXPReS) project, the four biggest radio telescopes in Europe have been connected with high-bandwidth point-to-point circuits. The aim of the EXPReS project is to create a distributed, large-scale astronomical instrument of continental and intercontinental dimensions. As part of this, 1Gbps point-to-point network connections have been established between the central supercomputer and each of the partner telescopes across Europe's Geant2 network. Geant2 connects over 30 million European research and education users in 34 countries across the continent.

The four telescopes are located in Medicina (Italy), Torun (Poland) and Jodrell Bank and Cambridge (UK). Distance, however, will no longer be an issue as Geant2 allows them to connect to each other and to work together simultaneously to create, in effect, a single telescope as large as Europe.

EXPReS project coordinator Dr Huib Jan van Langevelde explained, 'The EXPReS project has huge potential. By creating an internationally distributed electronic Very Long Baseline Interferometer we will be able to chart evidence of previously unseen astronomical events.'

In effect, this project will give astronomers the ability to track transient and short-lived events right at the edge of the known universe, helping astronomers to get a more complete view of the cosmos in which we live.

Historically radio astronomy has led to substantial increases in astronomical knowledge, particularly with the discovery of several classes of new objects, including pulsars, quasars and radio galaxies. As a result of EXPReS, astronomers are anticipating that the project will enable real-time 'rapid response, target of opportunity' science which will allow researchers to react quickly to unexpected events, such as supernovae explosions and gamma-ray bursts.

Led by the Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe (Jive), the project expects to expand to link radio astronomy institutes from across Europe, Asia, Australia, South America, South Africa and the US in the future. Additional telescopes operated by EXPReS partners in nine other countries are also in the process of being connected to the correlator at JIVE.

More information:

  • European Science Foundation
  • Express Production Real-time e-VLBI Service

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