Press Release

Scientists Celebrate VLBA’s First Decade As Astronomy’s Sharpest “Eye” on the Universe

By SpaceRef Editor
June 11, 2003
Filed under , ,

Scientists from around the globe are gathered in Socorro,
New Mexico, to mark the tenth anniversary of
the National Science Foundation’s Very Long Baseline
Array (VLBA), a continent-wide radio telescope that
produces the most detailed images of any instrument
available to the world’s astronomers.

Nearly 200 scientists are presenting 160 research
papers on topics including geophysics, star and
planet formation, supernova explosions, galaxies,
supermassive black holes, and future directions of
research and instrumentation in astronomy. The meeting
is sponsored by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory
(NRAO) and the New Mexico Institute of Mining and
Technology (NM Tech). The meeting is being held on
the NM Tech campus in Socorro.

“In ten years of operation, the VLBA has made landmark
contributions to astronomy. In this scientific meeting,
we are acknowledging those contributions and looking
forward to an even more exciting future of frontier
research,” said James Ulvestad, director of VLA/VLBA
operations for the NRAO.

“The presentations at this meeting show that the VLBA
is being used to study a much broader range of
astronomical objects than was anticipated by its
designers,” said Prof. Roger Blandford of Caltech,
who delivered the meeting’s opening Keynote Address.

Dedicated in 1993, the $85-million VLBA includes ten,
240-ton radio-telescope antennas, ranging from Hawaii
in the west to the U.S. Virgin Islands in the east. Two
are in New Mexico, one near Pie Town in Catron County
and the other at Los Alamos. The VLBA is operated from
the NRAO’s Array Operations Center in Socorro.

Acting like a giant eye 5,000 miles wide, the VLBA
can produce the sharpest images of any telescope on
Earth or in space. Its ability to see fine detail,
called resolving power, is equivalent to being able
to stand in New York and read a newspaper in Los

The VLBA’s scientific achievements include making the
most accurate distance measurement ever made of an object
beyond the Milky Way Galaxy; the first mapping of the
magnetic field of a star other than the Sun; “movies” of
motions in powerful cosmic jets and of distant supernova
explosions; the first measurement of the propagation speed
of gravity; and long-term measurements that have improved
the reference frame used to map the Universe and detect
tectonic motions of Earth’s continents.

In coming years, scientists plan to use the VLBA, along
with other radio-telescope facilities, to gain
important new insights on astronomical bodies ranging
from nearby stars to the most distant galaxies, seen
as they were billions of years ago. The VLBA also will
help improve the celestial coordinate system used for
spacecraft navigation and other purposes.

Blandford outlined a number of future research challenges,
including understanding how pulsars produce their powerful
beams of light and radio waves, learning how supermassive
black holes and their nearby environments produce superfast
cosmic jets, trying to understand solar bursts, using
gravitational lenses to study the distant Universe,
and understanding the mechanisms of gamma ray bursts and
their “afterglows.”

“I am heartened to see the number of young astronomers
at this meeting who are using the VLBA and will use it
to help answer these important scientific questions,”
Blandford added.

Closer to home, the VLBA can be “turned around” to produce
extremely precise measurements on the Earth. This
capability allows scientists to study the motion of Earth’s
tectonic plates, to track “wobbles” in our planet’s
rotation, and to measure subtle changes attributed
to atmospheric motions and climate change.

The meeting in Socorro began June 8 and runs through
June 12.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of
the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative
agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

SpaceRef staff editor.