Marking an important new milestone in radio astronomy history, scientists at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Socorro, New Mexico, have made the first images using a radio telescope antenna in space. The images, more than a million times more detailed than those produced by the human eye, used the new Japanese HALCA satellite, working in conjunction with the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) and Very Large Array (VLA) ground-based radio telescopes. The landmark images are the result of a long-term NRAO effort supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
“This success means that our ability to make detailed radio images of objects in the universe is no longer limited by the size of the Earth,” said NRAO Director Paul Vanden Bout. “Astronomy’s vision has just become much sharper.”
HALCA, launched on Feb. 11 by Japan’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), is the first satellite designed for radio astronomy imaging. It is part of an international collaboration led by ISAS and backed by NRAO; Japan’s National Astronomical Observatory; NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL); the Canadian Space Agency; the Australia Telescope National Facility; the European VLBI Network and the Joint Institute for Very Long Baseline Interferometry in Europe.
On May 22, HALCA observed a distant active galaxy called PKS 1519-273, while the VLBA and VLA also observed it. Data from the satellite was received by a tracking station at the NRAO facility in Green Bank, West Virginia. Tape-recorded data from the satellite and from the radio telescopes on the ground were sent to NRAO’s Array Operations Center (AOC) in Socorro, NM.
In Socorro, astronomers and computer scientists used a special-purpose computer to digitally combine the signals from the satellite and the ground telescopes to make them all work together as a single, giant radio telescope. This dedicated machine, the VLBA Correlator, built as part of the VLBA instrument, was modified over the past four years to allow it to incorporate data from the satellite. Correlation of the observational data was completed successfully on June 12, after the exact timing of the satellite recording was established. Further computer processing produced an image of PKS 1519-273 — the first image ever produced using a radio telescope in space.
For Jim Ulvestad, the NRAO astronomer who made the first image, the success ended a long quest for this new capability. Ulvestad was involved in an experiment more than a decade ago in which a NASA communications satellite, TDRSS, was used to test the idea of doing radio astronomical imaging by combining data from space and ground radio telescopes. That experiment showed that an orbiting antenna could, in fact, work in conjunction with ground-based radio observatories, and paved the way for HALCA and a planned Russian radio astronomy satellite called RadioAstron.
“This first image is an important technical milestone, and demonstrates the feasibility of a much more advanced mission, ARISE, currently being considered by NASA,” Ulvestad said.
The first image showed no structure in the object, even at the extremely fine level of detail achievable with HALCA; it is what astronomers call a “point source.” This object also appears as a point source in all-ground-based observations. In addition, the 1986 TDRSS experiment observed the object, and, while this experiment did not produce an image, it indicated that PKS 1519-273 should be a point source.
“This simple point image may not appear very impressive, but its beauty to us is that it shows our entire, complex system is functioning correctly. The system includes not only the orbiting and ground-based antennas, but also the orbit determination, tracking stations, the correlator, and the image-processing software,” said Jonathan Romney, the NRAO astronomer who led the development of the VLBA correlator, and its enhancement to process data from orbiting radio telescopes. “We would be skeptical of a complex image if we had not been able to obtain a good point image first,” Romney added.
A second observing target, the quasar 1156+295, observed on June 5, made a more interesting picture. Seen by ground-based radio observatories, this object, at a distance of 6.5 billion light years, has been known to show an elongation in its structure to the northeast of the core. However, seen with the space-ground system, it is clearly shown to have both a core and a complex “jet” emerging from the core. Such jets, consisting of subatomic particles moving near the speed of light, are seen in many quasars and active galaxies throughout the universe. In fact, 1156+295 is one of a class of objects recently found by NASA’s Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory to exhibit powerful gamma-ray emission; such objects are among the most compact and energetic known in the universe.
“By showing that this object actually is a core-jet system, HALCA has produced its first new scientific information, and demonstrates its imaging capabilities for a variety of astrophysical investigations,” Romney said. “This image shows that the jet extends much closer to the core, or ‘central engine’ of the quasar than is shown by ground-only imaging,” Romney added.
“This is an exciting and historical achievement for radio astronomy,” said Miller Goss, NRAO’s VLA/VLBA Director. “At NRAO, we have seen our colleagues — scientists, electrical engineers, computer programmers and technicians in Socorro and Green Bank — work for years on this project. Now, they can take pride in their success.”
Radio astronomers, like astronomers using visible light, usually seek to make images of the objects at which they aim their telescopes. Because radio waves are much longer than light waves, a radio telescope must be much larger than an optical instrument in order to see the same amount of detail. Greater ability to see detail, called resolving power, has been a quest of radio astronomers for more than half a century.
To see a level of detail equal to that revealed by optical telescopes would require a radio-telescope dish miles across. In the 1950s, British and Australian scientists developed a technique that used smaller, widely-separated antennas, and combined their signals to produce resolving power equal to that of a single dish as large as the distance between the smaller dishes. This technique, called interferometry, is used by the VLA, with 27 antennas and a maximum separation of 20 miles, and the VLBA, with 10 antennas and a maximum separation of 5,000 miles. Systems such as the VLBA, in which the antennas are so widely separated that data must be individually tape-recorded at each site and combined after the observation, are called Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) systems. VLBI was developed by American and Canadian astronomers and was first successfully demonstrated in 1967.
The VLBA, working with radio telescopes in Europe, represents the largest radio telescope that can be accommodated on the surface of the Earth. With an orbit that carries it more than 13,000 miles above the Earth, HALCA, working with the ground-based telescopes, extends the “sharp vision” of radio astronomy farther than ever before. Using HALCA, radio astronomers expect to routinely produce images with more than 100 times the detail seen by the Hubble Space Telescope.
Astronomers around the world are waiting to use the satellite to seek answers to questions about some of the most distant and intriging objects in the universe. As much as one-third of the VLBA’s observing time will be devoted to observations in conjunction with HALCA. Over the expected five-year lifetime of HALCA, scientists hope to observe hundreds of quasars, pulsars, galaxies, and other objects.
Launched from Japan’s Kagoshima Space Center, HALCA orbits the Earth every six hours, ranging from 350 to 13,200 miles high. The 1,830-pound satellite has a dish antenna 26 feet in diameter. The antenna, folded like an umbrella for the launch, was unfolded under radio control from the ground on Feb. 26. The antenna was pointed toward PKS 1519-273 after a three-month checkout of the spacecraft’s electronics, computers and guidance systems.
HALCA observations represent a true international scientific collaboration. In addition to the HALCA spacecraft, built, launched, and operated by Japan’s ISAS, the participation of a large number of ground-based radio telescopes is also essential. NRAO’s VLBA and VLA instruments, including the VLBA correlator, will be a vital component of this collaboration. Other radio telescopes in the U.S., Japan, Europe, and Australia, also will participate.
NRAO’s facility at Green Bank, WV, is one of five tracking stations where the data collected on the spacecraft are received and recorded. Another is at an ISAS facility in Japan, and JPL operates three additional tracking stations, in California, Australia, and Spain. JPL also collects information from all tracking stations to determine the very accurate spacecraft orbit necessary to reduce these observations.
The NRAO Space VLBI efforts in Socorro and Green Bank were supported by funding from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.
Dave Finley, Public Information Officer