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VLBA Science


Witnessing Life Cycles in the Cosmos

Using the VLBA as one of the world's most powerful radio cameras, astronomers peer through the dark cores of glowing gas clouds and see the stars that make them tick. In time-lapse, the VLBA sees hearts of galaxies pulsing as their central supergiant black holes whip out quintillions of tons of charged gas every day. With the VLBA's super eye, astronomers:
  • Update theories of how supermassive black holes feed and grow
  • Hunt for planets around dwarf stars
  • Record detailed time-lapse movies of supercharged gas speeding out from around black holes and newly forming stars
  • Watch "space weather" and magnetism around other stars
  • Reveal the shifting shells of nearby baby stars and aging suns
  • Witness the expansion of supernovae explosions over many years


M87 HST to VLBA


Radio galaxy M87 with the Hubble Space Telescope, showing its massive jet. The VLBA can see 300 times farther into the galaxy to reveal the source of the jet: a supermassive black hole. (Credit: NASA and the Hubble Heritage Team; NRAO/AUI; Y.Y. Kovalev, MPIfR and ASC.)

Mapping the Universe

The VLBA is a critical tool for astronomy, where knowing distances is the basis for figuring out mass, makeup, and movement of cosmic objects. With the VLBA's unmatched pinpointing accuracy, astronomers:
  • Measure the spins and shapes of galaxies, including our Milky Way
  • Collect cosmological distances to measure Dark Energy in the Universe
  • Trace the movements of black holes and pulsars to learn their history and future
  • Predict if and when galaxies will collide, including the Andromeda Galaxy with our Milky Way
  • Provide most accurate distances to stars
  • Pinpoint the exact centers of planets in our Solar System
  • Develop the celestial reference grid used by other telescopes

Monitoring the Changing Earth

To determine their exact locations on Earth to within fractions of an inch, the VLBA telescopes observe very distant quasars. With the support of the US Naval Observatory, the VLBA telescopes then act like pins tacked to the Earth's crust; any movement of the crust shows up as a change in distances between the telescopes. With the exact ground positioning of the VLBA, scientists:
  • Help GPS services improve their accuracy
  • Monitor movements of the Earth's crust and learn how they reflect wind patterns and point to climate change

Tracking Near-Earth Asteroids

Radar facilities beam radio pulses on to nearby asteroids. The VLBA's telescopes collect the beams as they return to Earth, pinpointing an asteroid's location over time. The precise timing of reflections received by the VLBA telescopes reveals the asteroid's spin rate and direction and allows prediction of changes in its orbit. With the VLBA's timing accuracy, astronomers can:
  • Keep an eye on potentially devastating "killer" asteroids
  • Monitor those asteroids targeted for possible future human exploration
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