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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

E-Merlin "Super-Telescope" Switched On

By Rebecca Morelle
Science reporter, BBC News

Lovell telescope (Anthony Holloway, Jodrell Bank)
The Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank dominates the Cheshire landscape

The first stage of the switch-on of one of the world's most powerful stargazing systems has got under way.

Seven radio telescopes around the UK have been linked with optical fibres, allowing scientists to probe deeper into the Universe than ever before.

The new data-link upgrade has replaced the older microwave technology that once connected the telescopes.

Tim O'Brien, from the e-Merlin project, said: "It will be a revolution in terms of what we can do with our astronomy."

Astronomers at Jodrell Bank say that the e-Merlin array will be fully operational later this year.

Jodrell Bank

Radio telescopes work by collecting radio waves emitted from objects many light-years away, allowing scientists to look deep into the cosmos.

But a single telescope - even one as huge as the 76m-wide Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire, where e-Merlin's headquarters is based - is limited in terms of what it can see.

So astronomers combine the power of several telescopes spread over a wide area, in essence creating the effect of a giant "superscope".

Map of e-Merlin array

For the last 20 years, seven telescopes that are spread across UK have been joined together in this way to form an array.

However, the older microwave technology that once connected them was only able to return a fraction of the data that was being recorded.

Dr O'Brien, who is head of outreach at Jodrell Bank and a senior lecturer in astrophysics at the University of Manchester, told BBC News: "It's like using a very narrow pipe to transfer information - and in fact, with microwaves, most of the signal we pick up at the radio telescopes never makes it back to Jodrell Bank."

It is like moving from a dial-up connection on the internet to a broadband one
Dr Tim O'Brien

Over the past six years, a huge project has been underway to swap the older microwave links for hundreds of kilometres of optical fibre cables, which are buried beneath the ground.

These thin "pipes" can carry reams of data, and scientists believe they will give the e-Merlin telescope array a new hi-tech lease of life.

Dr O'Brien explained: "It is like moving from a dial-up connection on the internet to a broadband one.

Cambridge telescope (Ian Morison)
This telescope in Cambridge forms part of the e-Merlin array

"It means we will now be able to get all of the signal back from the telescopes. We'll be able to do in one day what would have previously taken us three years to do."

This extra data will allow astronomers to see objects in the Universe in much finer detail than was previously possible, and it will also enable them to study parts of the cosmos that have never been seen before.

Professor Simon Garrington, director of the e-Merlin project, said: "This combination of a boost in resolution and sensitivity will allow a whole community of scientists in the UK and around the world to address some of the key questions in astronomy today.

"These questions cover the whole range of astronomy, from the formation of Earth-like planets to the physics that governs how stars of different types are formed."


Sir Bernard Lovell on building his iconic telescope

In 2007, the iconic Lovell telescope at the Jodrell Bank Observatory, which forms a key part of the e-Merlin array, celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Sir Bernard Lovell, who founded Jodrell Bank, told the BBC that the longevity of the observatory and the string of discoveries it has led to has continued to surprise.

He said: "It is astonishing that despite all the new developments and all the new instruments that have been designed, the Jodrell telescope still has such an important use."

Funding struggles

The road to getting the e-Merlin project up and running has not been problem free.

Last year, e-Merlin, along with a number of other high-profile physics and astronomy projects, were put at risk thanks to an £80m shortfall in science funding.

However, it was given a last-minute reprieve after the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) agreed to continue funding it.

Artists impression of the Square Kilometre Array (Xilostudios)
e-Merlin is a forerunner for the Square Kilometre Array

In the coming years, Jodrell Bank is set to become the headquarters to an even bigger project.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will be based in either Australia or South Africa, will link thousands of telescopes spread over thousands of kilometres, creating a system 50-times more powerful than anything we have now.

Scientists say the technology developed for the e-Merlin array will be key for developing the SKA.

The e-Merlin project has been funded by the STFC, Northwest Regional Development Agency, the University of Manchester, the University of Cambridge and Liverpool John Moores University.