Radio astronomy

Radio astronomy is a subfield of astronomy that studies celestial objects in the radio frequency portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Radio astronomy techniques are similar to optical techniques but radio telescopes have to be much larger due to the longer wavelengths being observed. The field originated from the discovery that most astronomical objects emit radiation in the radio wavelengths as well as optical ones.


The idea that celestial bodies may be emitting radio waves had been suspected some time before its discovery. In the 1860's James Clerk Maxwell's equations had shown that electromagnetic radiation from stellar sources could exist with any wavelength, not just optical. Several notable scientists and experimenters such as Thomas Edison, Oliver Lodge, and Max Planck predicted that the sun should be emitting radio waves. Lodge tried to observe solar signals but was unable to detect them due to technical limitations of his apparatus[1].

The first identified astronomical radio source was one discovered serendipitously in the early 1930s when Karl Guthe Jansky, an engineer with Bell Telephone Laboratories, was investigating static that interfered with short wave transatlantic voice transmissions. Using a large directional antenna, Jansky noticed that his analog pen-and-paper recording system kept recording a repeating signal of unknown origin. Since the signal peaked once a day, Jansky originally suspected the source of the interference was the sun. Continued analysis showed that the source was not following the rising and setting of the sun exactly but instead repeating on a cycle of 23 hours and 56 minutes, typical of an astronomical source "fixed" on the celestial sphere rotating in sync with sidereal time. By comparing his observations with optical astronomical maps, Jansky concluded that the radiation was coming from the Milky Way and was strongest in the direction of the center of the galaxy, in the constellation of Sagittarius [2]. He announced his discovery in 1933. Jansky wanted to investigate the radio waves from the Milky Way in further detail but Bell Labs re-assigned Jansky to another project, so he did no further work in the field of astronomy.

Grote Reber helped pioneer radio astronomy when he built a large parabolic "dish" radio telescope (9m in diameter) in 1937. He was instrumental in repeating Karl Guthe Jansky's pioneering but somewhat simple work, and went on to conduct the first sky survey in the radio frequencies [3]. On February 27, 1942, J.S. Hey, a British Army research officer, helped progress radio astronomy further, when he discovered that the sun emitted radio waves [4]. By the early 1950s Martin Ryle and Antony Hewish at Cambridge University had used the Cambridge Interferometer to map the radio sky, producing the famous 2C and 3C surveys of radio sources.


Radio astronomers use different types of techniques to observe objects in the radio spectrum. Instruments may simply be pointed at an energetic radio source to analyze what type of emissions it makes. To “image” a region of the sky in more detail, multiple overlapping scans can be recorded and piece together in an image ('mosaicing'). The types of instruments being used depends on the weakness of the signal and the amount of detail needed.

Radio telescopes

Main article: Radio telescope

An optical image of the galaxy M87 (HST), a radio image of same galaxy using Interferometry (Very Large Array-VLA), and an image of the center section using Very Long Baseline Interferometry (Very Long Baseline Array-VLBA) consisting of antennas in the US, Germany, Italy, Finland, Sweden and Spain. The jet of particles is suspected to be powered by a black hole in the center of the galaxy.

Radio telescopes may need to be extremely large in order to receive signals with low signal-to-noise ratio. Also since angular resolution is a function of the diameter of the "objective" in proportion to the wavelength of the electromagnetic radiation being observed, radio telescopes have to be much larger in comparison to their optical counterparts. For example a 1 meter diameter optical telescope is two million times bigger than the wavelength of light observed giving it a resolution of a few arc seconds, whereas a radio telescope "dish" many times that size may, depending on the wavelength observed, may only be able to resolve an object the size of the full moon (30 minutes of arc).

Radio interferometry

The difficulty in achieving high resolutions with single radio telescopes led to radio interferometry, developed by British radio astronomer Martin Ryle and Australian-born engineer, radiophysicist, and radio astronomer Joseph Lade Pawsey in 1946. Radio interferometers consist of widely separated radio telescopes observing the same object that are connected together using coaxial cable, waveguide, optical fiber, or other type of transmission line. This not only increases the total signal collected, it can also be used in a process called Aperture synthesis to vastly increase resolution. This technique works by superposing (interfering) the signal waves from the different telescopes on the principle that waves that coincide with the same phase will add to each other while two waves that have opposite phases will cancel each other out. This creates a combined telescope that is the size of the antennas furthest apart in the array. In order to produce a high quality image, a large number of different separations between different telescopes are required (the projected separation between any two telescopes as seen from the radio source is called a baseline) - as many different baselines as possible are required in order to get a good quality image. For example the Very Large Array has 27 telescopes giving 351 independent baselines at once.

Very Long Baseline Interferometry

Since the 1970s telescopes from all over the world (and even in Earth orbit) have been combined to perform Very Long Baseline Interferometry. Data received at each antenna is paired with timing information, usually from a local atomic clock, and then stored for later analysis on magnetic tape or hard disk. At that later time, the data is correlated with data from other antennas similarly recorded, to produce the resulting image. Using this method it is possible to create an antenna that is effectively the size of the Earth.

Using these techniques, radio telescopes are able to achieve much higher angular resolution and image quality than instruments working in other wavelength bands.

Astronomical sources

Radio astronomy has led to substantial increases in astronomical knowledge, particularly with the discovery of several classes of new objects, including pulsars, quasars and radio galaxies. This is because radio astronomy allows us to see things that are not detectable in optical astronomy. Such objects represent some of the most extreme and energetic physical processes in the universe.

Radio astronomy is also partly responsible for the idea that dark matter is an important component of our universe; radio measurements of the rotation of galaxies suggest that there is much more mass in galaxies than has been directly observed. The cosmic microwave background radiation was also first detected using radio telescopes. However, radio telescopes have also been used to investigate objects much closer to home, including observations of the Sun and solar activity, and radar mapping of the planets.

Other sources include:

* Sun

* Sagittarius A, the galactic center of the Milky Way

* Active galactic nuclei and pulsars have jets of charged particles which emit synchrotron radiation

* Merging galaxy clusters often show diffuse radio emission[1]

* Supernova remnants can also show diffuse radio emission

* The Cosmic microwave background is blackbody radio emission

See also

* History of astronomical interferometry


1. ^, "Pre-History of Radio Astronomy" Compiled by F. Ghigo

2. ^ Karl G. Jansky, "Radio waves from outside the solar system", Nature, 132, p.66. 1933

3. ^ Grote Reber

4. ^ J. S. Hey. The Radio Universe, 2nd Ed., Pergamon Press, Oxford-New York (1975),


*, How Radio Telescopes Work

* The Jet of Galaxy M87

Further reading


* Gart Westerhout, The early history of radio astronomy. Ann. New York Acad. Sci. 189 Education in and History of Modern Astronomy (August 1972) 211-218 doi 10.1111/j.1749-6632.1972.tb12724.x

* Hendrik Christoffel van de Hulst, The Origin of Radio Waves From Space.

* History of High-Resolution Radio Astronomy. Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, September 2001


* Woodruff T. Sullivan, III, The early years of radio astronomy. 1984.

* Woodruff T. Sullivan, III, Classics in Radio Astronomy. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, 1982.

* Kristen Rohlfs, Thomas L Wilson, Tools of Radio Astronomy. Springer 2003. 461 pages. ISBN 3540403876

* Raymond Haynes, Roslynn Haynes, and Richard McGee, Explorers of the Southern Sky: A History of Australian Astronomy. Cambridge University Press 1996. 541 pages. ISBN 0521365759

* Shigeru Nakayama, A Social History of Science and Technology in Contemporary Japan: Transformation Period 1970-1979. Trans Pacific Press 2006. 580 pages. ISBN 1876843462

* David L. Jauncey, Radio Astronomy and Cosmology. Springer 1977. 420 pages. ISBN 9027708398

* Allan A. Needell, Science, Cold War and American State: Lloyd V. Berkner and the Balance of Professional Ideals. Routledge 2000. ISBN 905702621X (ed., see Chapter 10, Expanding Federal Support of Private Research: The Case of Radio Astronomy (Pages 259 - 596))

* Bruno Bertotti, Modern Cosmology in Retrospect. Cambridge University Press 1990. 446 pages. ISBN 0521372135 (ed., see essays by Robert Wilson, Discovery of the cosmic microwave background and Woodruff T. Sullivan, III, The entry of radio astronomy into cosmology: radio stars and 309 Martin Ryle's 2C survey.))

* J. S. Hey, The Evolution of Radio Astronomy. Neale Watson Academic, 1973.

* D. T. Wilkinson and P. J. E. Peebles, Serendipitous Discoveries in Radio Astronomy. National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Green Bank, WV, 1983.

* Joseph Lade Pawsey and Ronald Newbold Bracewell, Radio Astronomy. Clarendon Press, 1955. 361 pages.

* J. C.Kapteyn, P. C. v. d. Kruit, & K. v. Berkel, The legacy of J.C. Kapteyn: studies on Kapteyn and the development of modern astronomy. Astrophysics and space science library, v. 246. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers 2000.

* Roger Clifton Jennison, Introduction to Radio Astronomy. 1967. 160 pages.

* Robin Michael Green, Spherical Astronomy. Cambridge University Press 1985. 546 pages. ISBN 0521317797

* Albrecht Krüger, Introduction to Solar Radio Astronomy and Radio Physics. Springer 1979. 356 pages. ISBN 9027709572


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