Warning, much radio astronomy geekery ahead!
Wednesday was the first day of the National Radio Science Meeting in Boulder, CO. As I did two years ago, I spend most (if not all) of my time in Commission J: Radio Astronomy. This means fully geeking out in my favorite wavelength regime in astronomy. (Though, as Jeff Uphoff correctly states, radio astronomy is pretty damn geeky to start with.)
What is radio astronomy? Well, start here. Go ahead. I’ll wait
As with most of the field of astronomy, the emphasis is turning to larger and larger telescopes for surveys and for seeing more deeply into the universe. Whereas optical astronomers are looking forward to 30-meter monsters, radio astronomers build many more smaller telescopes into larger and larger arrays. Whereas the above pictured VLA is made of 27 antennas, we’re now talking about hundreds of individual elements for a telescope facility!
Many of the day’s talks focused on the development of such arrays. One of my favorites is the Allen Telescope Array, well know for its SETI efforts, but which has also been doing astronomy since 2007. For example, the “fly’s eye” survey mode is great for picking up radio transients, or somewhat mysterious flashes of radio light. Though some have been tracked to known events, such as irregular pulsars, others are unknown. The exploration of transient phenomena is just beginning as telescopes with the capability to survey large chunks of sky many times over come online.
Of course, there is also the suite of low frequency telescopes. This is my wavelength regime! Plenty of cool astrophysics can be probed by detecting radio light with a wavelength of several to hundreds of megahertz. (Ignoring that pesky FM radio-band, of course.) Represented today were the Murchison Widefield Array in Australia and the Long Wavelength Array in New Mexico, two such instruments with hundreds of individual elements. I say elements because they don’t look like telescopes or dishes at all.
These projects are both in the beginning phases, and I’ve been fortunate to watch them grow from concepts to physical realities, just beginning to scratch the surface of what we’ll be able to do. Also discussed today was HERA, a project that will come along further in the future. HERA stands for the Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array. (Learn more about the EoR on my latest Discovery post!) Two pathfinders for this project are the aforementioned MWA and, my baby, PAPER. It’s nice to know that the work that I am doing will contribute just one little bit to our exploration of this cool scientific frontier. (What exactly do I do? Well, I’ll tell you more after I give my talk later in the week.)
In addition to the transient sky and the EoR, these experiments and facilities will allow astronomers to study our active sun, track the motions of gas in the galaxy, study pulsars, and further explore our own planet’s atmosphere. First, however, there are many technical challenges, such as how to store, manipulate, and transfer many terabytes of data. Astronomy has never been so data rich before! We’ll be pushing the boundaries of what we can reliably detect right now, and who knows that secrets the universe will reveal as we push deeper.