Brussels, 03 Nov 2004
EU-funded 'RadioNet' brings together all of Europe's leading astronomy facilities with the goal of significantly enhancing the quality and quantity of science performed by European astronomers.
European radio astronomy is in the midst of a revolution, as digital and telecommunications advances of the 1990s bear fruit in the 2000s. Modern, high-performance technologies are now steadily replacing the obsolete electronics that once ran radio astronomy's most powerful telescopes. Large, single-dish telescopes are being linked via fibre optics, creating enormous 'focal-plane arrays' that increase our ability to see and understand the universe.
Advances such as these can result in tidal waves of new data, as astronomers try to maximise the production of new information. Soon, instruments such as the EVN, e-MERLIN, and ALMA will be routinely generating 0.5 TBytes (1 terabyte = 1000 gigabytes) of fresh data per day, every day.
Handling such prodigious quantities of data requires new software and the use of modern parallel computing techniques. Radio astronomers are increasingly involved in the development of the 'grid', the network of interconnected computers and instruments expected, one day, to spread across the entire globe. Around the world, radio astronomers now exchange data, but also share out real-time computational tasks.
A new Integrated Infrastructure Initiative
For the greater part of the last century, astronomical facilities were built to suit a research discipline comprised largely of national or bi-lateral efforts. Today's generation of astronomical facilities are multi-national in conception, requiring coordination and forward thinking on a European scale, the kind of undertaking hitherto the preserve of elementary particle physics research.
Funded under the European Commission's Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), RadioNet was originally based on more than 25 years of co-operation within the European VLBI Network (EVN). The objective of RadioNet is to ensure that key developments in radio astronomy are supported on a Europe-wide basis, pooling the range of skills, resources and expertise that exist within the RadioNet family.
A broad-based, well-focused scientific and engineering collaboration, say EU officials, will provide critical mass, ensuring that progress is not made slowly and in isolation but quickly and efficiently.
Shaping European radio astronomy
RadioNet provides coordination and oversight, ensuring that inter-dependent activities are properly matched and that end users – the astronomers – play a major part in shaping work programmes. The initiative includes 20 partners, ranging from radio telescope operators to microelectronics laboratories, MMIC designers and superconducting component manufacturers. Specific aims include:
- An integrated radio astronomy network;
- An integrated research and development programme;
- A programme of networking activities;
- Training for astronomers;
- Training for engineers;
- A common and unified approach to user support;
- A wide-ranging discussion of the next generation of world-class radio astronomy initiatives;
- A stronger European astronomical community.
The proposed programme of activities addresses:
- Transnational access: enabling easy and transparent access to the entire range of radio facilities, and offering integrated, professional and consistent user support;
- Joint research activities: improving and developing existing RadioNet facilities, enhancing equipment performance and telescope capabilities;
- Networking activities: supporting operations and engineering, and promoting radio astronomical science.
RadioNet partners say the initiative will have a long-lasting integrating effect on European radio astronomy. The close collaboration that will arise through networking and research activities will only be beneficial, not just to science and scientists but also, ultimately, to European citizens.
- European VLBI Network
The European VLBI (Very Long Baseline Interferometry) Network is an array of radio telescopes spread throughout Europe and beyond, conducting unique, high-resolution observations of cosmic radio sources. It is the most sensitive VLBI array in the world, thanks to the collection of extremely large telescopes that contribute to the network.
This UK network includes five radio telescopes and the University of Manchester's giant 76m Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory, all operating as a single radio telescope spanning 217 km.
The Atacama Large Millimeter Array is an international collaboration between Europe and the North America to build a synthesis radio telescope that will operate at millimetre and sub-millimetre wavelengths. Japan has also expressed interest in joining.