April 20, 2009

Upgraded E-Merlin Telescope Network Launched

Astronomers with the e-Merlin system of telescopes have seen "Ëœfirst light' as they look forward to being able to see further and more clearly than ever before.

"The new optical fiber network, together with new electronics at each telescope and a powerful new "Ëœcorrelator' which combines the signals at Jodrell Bank, will make the telescope one of the most powerful of its type in the world," said Professor Simon Garrington, Director of e-Merlin.

"The e-Merlin fiber 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."

Information collected by the network will be carried back to headquarters at the University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Observatory. The facility is connected to a variety of seven separate telescopes, which will provide astronomers with a powerful lens to observe the universe like never before.

The network's telescopes are spread up to 217 km apart across the UK. A single telescope, such as the 76m-wide Lovell telescope, is limited in terms of what it can see, but the collective grouping of telescopes will provide clear images toward the edge of the observable universe.

For the last 20 years, the telescopes have been laid out across the UK, but the new installation of optical fiber to replace older microwave technology will provide a brand new view. Engineers have been working for the past six years to replace the microwave links with miles of underground optical fiber cables.

"It's like using a very narrow pipe to transfer information - and in fact, with microwaves, most of the signal we pick up at the radio telescopes never makes it back to Jodrell Bank," said Dr. Tim O'Brien, head of outreach at Jodrell Bank.

"It is like moving from a dial-up connection on the internet to a broadband one," he told BBC News.

"It means we will now be able to get all of the signal back from the telescopes. We'll be able to do in one day what would have previously taken us three years to do."

The network is expected to be fully operational by 2010. A total of 325 astronomers from over 100 institutes in more than 20 countries answered a call for proposals for the first projects to be carried out by e-Merlin.

Astronomers have decided that the first tasks will 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.

"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," said Dr Tom Muxlow of The University of Manchester.

Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory (DRAO) in Penticton, Canada was responsible for building the correlator, a special-purpose computer designed for the e-Merlin project.

"This is an important first step in realizing the scientific potential offered by the e-MERLIN project, which will allow us to see the radio sky in unprecedented detail," said Professor John Womersley, Director of Science Programs at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

"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 Kilometer Array."


Image Caption: The 76 m Lovell Telescope. Courtesy Mike Peel - Wikipedia


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