Washington, June 8 : An international effort is underway to upgrade the Very Large Array (VLA), the world's biggest radio telescopes, with 21st century technology.
According to a report in Discovery News, the improvements will increase their sensitivity up to 10 times, opening up completely new cosmic realms for astronomers to explore in the future.
VLA is undergoing a total upgrade, starting with the key element in radio telescope arrays - the computer correlator that blends all the radio data from all the dishes.
Arrays of radio telescopes combine the radio waves they collect to vastly enhance the resolution of their cosmic images. This has been possible, and necessary, for decades because radio waves from space can be more in the range of tens of meters long.
That makes them both easier to line up and combine than visible light waves, which are only millionths of a meter long.
But combining radio waves also makes for less sharp, lower resolution images.
"Radio waves are very long and so you need very large telescopes," said Rick Perley, who is working on the 21st century Expanded VLA, or EVLA.
Because radio waves are millions of times longer than visible light, a collecting dish of a 10-meter radio telescope might only resolve an area of sky the size of the moon.
The only way to counteract this is by aiming lots of widespread radio telescopes at the same thing and combining their light - gather a lot more pixels, in other words - to sharpen the image.
For this reason, one of the most important upgrades for the VLA and other radio telescopes is the correlator, which synchronizes all the light from all the radio dishes to create a single high-resolution radio image.
The EVLA correlator is being built by Canadian researchers and engineers. Like most new computers, it will be able to handle more data much faster.
Another key hardware upgrade is replacing the 1970s-era radio receivers with far more sensitive modern receivers that can also read more radio wavelengths.
Fiber optics are also replacing the old wiring that tied the whole array together.
Also, the new giant array is being called the fastest radio telescope in the world with a virtual dish that spans Western Europe.
The supercomputer correlator that brings it all together is in The Netherlands and can swallow a gigabyte of data per second, which is 500 times what a household DSL line can handle. The resulting resolution is 100 times better than the Hubble Space Telescope.