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Radio-astronomers conduct marathon observation with telescope the size of the Earth

12th Jan 2009

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Below: Telescopes and networks used for the e-VLBI observation demonstrated on 15 and 16 January at the International Year of Astronomy (IYA 2009) Opening Ceremony.

e-VLBI map for IYA
Hi-res image
CREDIT: Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe.

Radio telescopes around the world will join forces this week to carry out a unique observation of three quasars, distant galaxies powered by super-massive black holes at their cores. The nearly continuous 33-hour observation will be conducted on Jan 15-16 as part of a demonstration at the opening event for the International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA 2009) in Paris.

17 telescopes in Asia, Australia, Europe, North America and South America, including several operated from the University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Observatory, will take part in the mammoth project.

Arpad Szomoru, Head of Technical Operations and R&D at the Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe (JIVE) noted, "The unique aspect of these observations is that telescopes located all around the globe will be brought together to work in real-time as a single gigantic instrument."

Using an astronomical technique called electronic, real-time Very Long Baseline Interferometry, or e-VLBI, participating telescopes will observe the same object simultaneously. Data from each telescope will be streamed across the globe through high-speed optical networks to a purpose-built supercomputer called a correlator located at JIVE in the Netherlands. This machine acts as the focus of the giant distributed telescope, the largest real-time telescope ever, combining the signals collected from instruments across the world.

"By combining information from such widely separated radio telescopes we can produce incredibly sharp images with up to one hundred times better resolution than those available from the best optical telescopes", said Simon Garrington, Director of the UK's MERLIN/VLBI National Facility. "It's like being able to sit here in Manchester and read a newspaper in London".

With e-VLBI the ability to send data electronically and combine it in real-time has the additional advantage of providing results to astronomers within hours of conducting an observation, rather than weeks later via the traditional VLBI method of recording data onto disks and shipping it to the correlator.

JIVE Director Huib Jan van Langevelde explained, "With VLBI we can zoom in on the most energetic events in the universe, and the new e-VLBI technique allows us to do this fast enough to catch such events on the time-scale that they occur and respond quickly."

Representatives from participating institutes will attend the IYA 2009 Opening Ceremony in Paris to demonstrate the observation to over 800 attendees, including Nobel Prize winners and aspiring young scientists from over 100 countries. Organizers of the observation have also launched an educational website about e-VLBI at

This e-VLBI observation was made possible by the Express Production Real-time e-VLBI Service (EXPReS). Funded by the European Commission, EXPReS has been working since 2006 to connect radio telescopes around the world to the correlator at JIVE using high-speed optical networks.

You can find out more about the International Year of Astronomy and events which will be taking place at the UK IYA 2009 website and the main international IYA 2009 website.

About EXPReS

Express Production Real-time e-VLBI Service (EXPReS, is a three-year project funded by the European Commission with the objective of creating a real-time distributed astronomical instrument of intercontinental dimensions. This electronic Very Long Baseline Interferometer (e-VLBI) is achieved using high-speed communication networks and connecting together some of the largest and most sensitive radio telescopes on the planet. EXPReS is a collaboration of 19 radio astronomy institutes and national research networks in 14 countries and is coordinated by the Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe (JIVE). EXPReS is an Integrated Infrastructure Initiative (I3), funded under the European Commission's Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), contract number 026642.

About JIVE

The Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe (JIVE, is a scientific foundation with a mandate to support the operations of the European VLBI Network (EVN). For this purpose it maintains, operates and develops the MKIV EVN Data Processor, a powerful supercomputer that combines the signals from radio telescopes located across the planet. Through this technique, called Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), astronomers can make detailed images of cosmic radio sources, providing astronomers with the clearest, highest resolution view of some of the most distant and energetic objects in the Universe.

About Jodrell Bank

The Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics (JBCA) is part of the School of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Manchester and operates the UK's MERLIN/VLBI national radio astronomy facility, on behalf of the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC). Jodrell Bank is a world leader in radio astronomy-related research and technology development and hosts the international program development office of the Square Kilometre Array, a €1.5 billion project to construct the world's largest radio telescope. The MERLIN array of seven radio telescopes stretches 217 km across England from Jodrell to Cambridge. The Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank and several of the MERLIN telescopes take part in e-VLBI observations.

Contacts at Manchester University's Jodrell Bank

Simon Garrington, Director MERLIN/VLBI National Facility
Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics
University of Manchester
simon.garrington "at"
Tel: +44 (0)1477 571321

Ralph Spencer, Professor Radioastronomy
Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics
University of Manchester
ralph.spencer "at"
Tel: +44 (0)161 275 4086

Tim O'Brien, Senior Lecturer and Head of Outreach
Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics
University of Manchester
tim.obrien "at"
Tel: +44 (0)161 275 4165

Contacts at JIVE, Netherlands

Huib van Langevelde, Director
Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe
langevelde "at"
Tel: +31 521 596 500

Arpad Szomoru, Head of Technical Operations and R&D
Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe
szomoru "at"
Tel: +31 521 596 500

Kristine Yun, EXPReS Public Outreach Officer
Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe
kyun "at"
Tel: +31 521 596 500

Contacts at Onsala Space Observatory, Sweden

Michael Lindqvist
Onsala Space Observatory, Sweden
michael.lindqvist "at"
Tel: +46 31 772 55 08


Participating telescopes

- Arecibo (PR/USA)
- ATCA (Australia)
- Cambridge (UK)
- Effelsberg (Germany)
- Hobart (Australia)
- Jodrell Bank (UK)
- Kashima (Japan)
- Medicina (Italy)
- Metsähovi (Finland)
- Mopra (Australia)
- Onsala (Sweden)
- Sheshan (China)
- TIGO (Chile)
- Torun (Poland)
- Urumqi (China)
- Westerbork (Netherlands)
- Westford (USA)

Data networks used

- AARNet (Australia)
- APAN (Asia-Pacific)
- AtlanticWave (USA, Canada, Brazil)
- CANARIE (Canada)
- Centennial (Puerto Rico)
- CSTNET (China)
- DFN (Germany)
- FUNET (Finland)
- GARR (Italy)
- GÉANT2 (Europe)
- Internet2 (USA)
- JGN2plus (Japan)
- Jülich Supercomputing Centre (Germany)
- MIT Lincoln Laboratory (USA)
- Netherlight (Netherlands)
- NORDUnet (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden)
- PIONIER (Poland)
- RedCLARA (Latin America)
- REUNA (Chile)
- Southern Cross Cables Network (Australia, New Zealand, USA)
- StarLight (USA)
- SUNET (Sweden)
- SURFnet (Netherlands)
- TransPAC2 (Asia-Pacific, USA)