Green Bank Telescope Uses Cyclic Spectroscopy to Create World’s First Real-Time Ultra-Wideband Pulsar Observations

Press Release From: Green Bank Observatory
Posted: Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Pulsars are one of the most enigmatic celestial objects studied by astronomy. These beacons are the lighthouses of the Universe. Pulsars rotate at incredible speeds, emitting a regular clocklike signal.

The National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Telescope (GBT) is a premier tool for studying pulsars, thanks to its sensitivity at detecting these distant objects. A new $1.3 million award from the NSF will develop a powerful new system for capturing these observations in real-time, combining pulsar observations and cyclic spectroscopy in the ultra-wideband. The Green Bank Observatory is the first in the world to combine all of these aspects at once, in one robust observation processing system, in real-time.

Cyclic spectroscopy takes advantage of the periodic nature of pulsars to simultaneously achieve ultra-high resolution in both radio frequency and time, while retaining the electromagnetic phase content of the signal. For astronomers around the world, this new ultra wideband cyclic spectroscopy observing mode will allow GBT users to process up to 3.6 GHz of instantaneous bandwidth.

The GBT is one of the largest fully-steerable radio telescopes in the world. From its home in the Deer Creek Valley, in the mountains of Appalachia, scientists, engineers, and machinists are creating a host of upgrades for the GBT to support this new ultra wideband cyclic spectroscopy system. These include an expansion of the GBT’s digital backend system and software, used to collect and process observational data. 

We often think of space as being a perfect, empty vacuum, but that's not quite right - gas, dust, and plasma fill the distance between the stars. By Earth standards, this material is a thin, almost non-existent haze, but it is noticeable enough to impact pulsar signals. Improvements provided by the cyclic spectroscopy system will allow the GBT to better measure this plasma and how it changes with time. In turn, this will also improve our ability to use pulsars to study extreme physics, especially gravitational waves.

The potential scientific contributions of this new system will provide unprecedented growth for several areas of astrophysics, including the study of the evolution of supermassive black holes, the influence of black holes on host galaxies (and vice versa), and the measurement of cosmological parameters, including testing general relativity. This project is a natural complement to a 0.7-4 GHz radio receiver currently in development for the GBT and optimized for high-precision pulsar timing. 

Green Bank Observatory’s award winning Education and Public Outreach department will develop public programs and activities sharing to share this new science, and training opportunities will be offered to graduate students in high-performance computing, instrument development, and the multi-messenger astrophysical applications of this new system, contributing to the next generation of gravitational wave astronomers.

To learn more about Observatory research and observer opportunities, visit our website. 

The Green Bank Observatory is a major facility of the National Science Foundation and is operated by Associated Universities, Inc.

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