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Earth-Size Radio Telescope Opens Its Eye

Seven telescopes act as one to produce finest radio images ever

2 min read

This fall, the world's largest telescope will begin its scientific mission. Made up of radio telescopes in Chile, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, South Africa, and Sweden, the e-VLBI--for electronic very long baseline interferometer--creates in effect a telescope with a diameter of 11 000 kilometers; Earth's own diameter is about 12 750 km at the equator. Because a telescope's resolution is proportional to its size, the e-VLBI should see farther out in space and time and elucidate the finer structures of the most energetic phenomena in the universe, such as supernovas, pulsars, and black holes.

Although a smaller, Europe-wide e-VLBI has been in operation for more than a year, the full multicontinent version opened its eye only on 22 May 2008, when all seven sites were linked to a custom-built supercomputer, operated by the European VLBI Network (EVN), in a test observation.

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.

NASA

For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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