PRESS RELEASE – Monday 4th October 2004


Astronomers Demonstrate a Global Internet Telescope


(PDF version)


European and US radio astronomers have demonstrated a new way of observing the Universe – through the Internet!


Using cutting-edge technology, the researchers have managed to observe both a distant star and the "monster in the middle" of a galaxy far away from our Milky Way. For this, they have used the world's research computer networks to create a giant virtual telescope. This allows imaging of the objects with unprecedented detail, and in real-time, which would have been impossible only a few years ago.


The star chosen for this remarkable demonstration, IRC+10420, is one of the most unusual in the sky. Surrounded by clouds of dusty gas and emitting strongly in radio waves, the object is poised at the end of its life, heading toward a cataclysmic explosion known as a 'supernova'. In contrast, the active galactic nucleus studied is that of the galaxy 3C166, situated 3.2 billion light years from the Earth.


These new observations give an exciting glimpse of the future of radio astronomy. Using research networks, astronomers will be able to see deeper into the distant Universe and capture unpredictable, transient events as they happen. Astronomers always seek to improve the resolving power of their telescopes, maximising the detail that can be seen; the bigger the telescope, the better the resolution. VLBI (or Very Long Baseline Interferometry) is used by radio astronomers to image the sky in supreme detail. Instead of using a single radio dish, arrays of telescopes are linked together across whole countries or even continents. When the signals are combined in a specialised computer, the resulting image has a resolution equal to that of a telescope as big as the maximum antenna separation.


Until now, VLBI has been severely hampered because the data had to be recorded onto tape and then shipped to a central processing facility for analysis. Consequently, radio astronomers were unable to judge the success of their endeavours until weeks or months after the observations were made. The solution, to link the telescopes electronically in real-time, now enables them to analyse the data as it arrives. This technique, naturally called e-VLBI, is now possible as high-bandwidth network connectivity has become a reality.


On 22nd September, 20-hour long observations using the European VLBI Network (EVN) involved radio telescopes in the UK, Sweden, the Netherlands, Poland and Puerto Rico. The maximum separation of the antennas was 8200 km (Puerto Rico to Poland), giving a resolution better than 20 milliarcseconds (mas), about 5 times better than the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). This level of detail is equivalent to picking out a small building on the surface of the Moon!  The inclusion of the huge 305-meter diameter antenna at Arecibo †, Puerto Rico, increased the sensitivity of the telescope array by a factor of 10. Even so, the signal from the distant star was more than a billion billion times weaker than a typical mobile phone handset!


Each telescope was connected to its country's National Research and  Education Network , and the data routed at 32 Mbits/second per telescope through GEANT, the pan-European research network, to SURFnet, the Dutch network. The data were then delivered to the Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe (JIVE) in the Netherlands, where the 9 Terabits of data were fed in real-time into a specialised supercomputer, called a 'correlator', and combined. The same research networks were then used to deliver the final data product directly to the astronomers who formed the images. Until the network infrastructure provided by GEANT became available, astronomers could not transfer the huge amounts of data required for e-VLBI across the Internet. In a sense, the Internet itself acts like a telescope, performing the same task as the curved surfaces of the individual radio dishes. Dai Davies, General Manager of DANTE who operate GEANT, said, "Research networking is fundamental to this new radio astronomy technique and it is very satisfying to see the benefits that are now resulting from it".


Although the scientific goals of this experiment were modest, the e-VLBI observations of IRC+10420 open up the possibility of watching the structures of astrophysical objects as they change. IRC+10420 is a supergiant star in the constellation of Aquila and is one of the brightest celestial infrared sources. It has a mass about 10 times that of the Sun and lies about 15,000 light years from Earth. It is surrounded by a thick shell of dust and gas thrown out from the surface of the star at a rate of about 200 times the mass of the Earth every year. Radio astronomers are able to image the dust and gas surrounding IRC+10420 because one component molecule, hydroxyl (OH), reveals itself by means of strong 'maser' emission. Essentially, the astronomers see clumps of gas where radio emission is strongly amplified by special conditions. With the zoom lens provided by e-VLBI, astronomers can make images with great detail and watch the clumps of gas move, see masers being born and die on timescales of weeks to months, and study the changing magnetic fields that permeate the shell. The results show that the gas is moving at about 40 km/sec and was ejected from the star some 900 years ago.


It is believed that IRC+10420 is rapidly evolving toward the end of its life. At some point, maybe thousands of years from now, maybe tomorrow, the star is expected to blow itself apart in one of the most energetic phenomena known in the Universe - a 'supernova'. The resulting cloud of material will eventually form a new generation of stars and planetary systems. With the incredible power of e-VLBI, radio astronomers are now poised, to catch the details as they happen and study these physical processes that are so important to the structure of our Galaxy and to life itself.


More distant, and on a larger scale, the galaxy 3C166 contains an active nucleus which is feeding material from the center of the galaxy, through narrow "jets", to huge emission lobes situated far outside of the galaxy itself. The active nucleus, or "central engine" as it is often known, is believed to contain a super-massive black hole providing the energy to power the out-flowing jets. In the accompanying figure, the very center of the galaxy is imaged, and the majority of the radio emission is found to originate in a region that is smaller than 88 light years, emphasising the presence of a highly compact object, believed to be the black hole.


The emergent technology of e-VLBI is set to revolutionise radio astronomy. As network bandwidths increase, so too will the sensitivity of e-VLBI arrays, allowing clearer views of the furthest and faintest regions of space. Dr Mike Garrett, JIVE Director, commented, "These results provide a glimpse of the enormous potential of e-VLBI. The rapid progress in global communications networks should permit us to connect together the largest radio telescopes in the world at speeds exceeding tens of Gigabits per second over the next few years. The death throes of the first massive stars in the Universe, the emerging jets of matter from the central black-holes of the first galaxies, will be revealed in exquisite detail."


† The Arecibo Observatory is part of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, which is operated by Cornell University under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation.






Figure 1: (left) A low-resolution image of IRC+10420 taken with the UK’s MERLIN radio telescope array shows the shell of ‘maser’ emission at a frequency of 1612 MHz. The corresponding EVN e-VLBI image (right) shows much finer structure of the masers due to the longer telescope baselines. The expanding shell of gas revealed by these observations has a diameter about 200 times that of our own Solar System. The gas is moving at about 40 km/s and was ejected by the star about 900 years ago. The study of the dynamics and chemistry of these gas shells enable astronomers to investigate the production of chemical elements important for star and planet formation, and ultimately life itself.



Figure 2: The spectrum of IRC+10420 (a plot of signal strength as it changes with frequency of the radio waves), as observed during the EVN e-VLBI observations of 22nd September. The total velocity width of the emission shows that the shell of IRC+10420 is expanding at about 40 km/s.


Figure 3: A transatlantic e-VLBI image of the nuclear region of the radio galaxy 3C166. The distance of this object is 3.2 billion light years, and its size is less than 88 light years. A super massive black hole is believed to reside in the center of this strong radio galaxy.





Pictures taken at the Arecibo Observatory during the e-VLBI run on September 22, 2004 (click to enlarge).

Left frame: back: Tapasi Ghosh, José Cruz, Bill Genter, Arun Venkataraman; front: Chris Salter, Emmanuel Momjian.

Right frame:  Arun Venkataraman, Bill Genter, Chris Salter, Tapasi Ghosh and Emmanuel Momjian



Media Contacts


Dr. Chris Salter
NAIC-Arecibo Observatory
HC 3 Box 53995
Arecibo, PR, 00612
Tel: +1 787 878 2612 x 281
Dr. Huib van Langevelde

P. O. Box 2
7990 AA Dwingeloo
The Netherlands

Tel: +31 (0)521 596500

Prof. Philip Diamond
Jodrell Bank Observatory

Cheshire SK11 9DL
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0)1477 571321

Dr. John Conway
Onsala Space Observatory

of Technology
SE-439 92 Onsala
Tel: +46 (0)31 7725500


Last updated: Monday, 04-Oct-2004
E. Momjian