Scientists believe the next generation of radio telescopes being designed in New Mexico could watch planets form.
The Very Large Array (VLA) astronomical observatory gathers data about the universe that’s light-years away. But newer models will be able to do much more than the existing ones.
“If we really want to hone in and zoom in on the formation of planets like our own, we really need a new facility with 10 times the sensitivity and 10 times the spatial resolution,” said Chris Carilli, Chief Scientist at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).
Carilli described the current Very Large Array’s ability to view phenomena like planet formation as an out-of-focus television. The next generation of radio telescopes will be 10 times more powerful, with greater sensitivity and resolution.
“It’s the difference between going for a jog and getting on a highway at 60 miles an hour, or getting on the highway and getting on a Boeing 747 at 600 miles an hour. So you can imagine how having an instrument 10 times more powerful really opens up opportunities for the scientists and how they want to use it,” said Robert Selina, project engineer for the ngVLA.
Selina said the antennas of the ngVLA will gather 13,000 petabytes of data per month, equivalent to about 10 percent of the monthly global internet traffic.
The current Very Large Array was made famous in movies like “Contact” starring Jodie Foster, and “Terminator Salvation” starring Christian Bale. The iconic white antennas stand out for miles in the bright New Mexico desert.
The astronomical observatory sits atop a plain that’s 7,000 feet above sea level and is located in a dry climate, which improves distant visibility. The telescopes can scan 80 percent of the sky at that line of latitude. They are also located in a remote area, away from major cities, which have cell phone and radio towers, airport air traffic control, and other signals that can interfere with the telescope’s receivers.
The antennas are about 82 feet in diameter and weigh 230 tons each. The next generation telescopes will be 20 feet smaller in diameter. The 27 antennas will also expand to 250, but will spread from their current site to other locations in Texas and Mexico, which will allow it to have significantly higher resolution.
“It’s kind of like a zoom lens on a camera. You can choose to zoom in on your camera and see fine detail and zoom out and get a very broad view. One of the things we want to do with ngVLA is get all those views at once,” Selina said.
The current VLA site has captured stunning moments in our universe and many right here in our galaxy. One image shows hot gas erupting from a black hole as other galaxies twinkle in the background. Another shows the Crab Nebula, which is 6,000 light years away. It is images like these that prompted scientists to push for an upgrade to see what else in the galaxy they can find.
“The results that are coming out are spectacular and really driving the field of astronomy forward,” Carilli said. “And yet also showing that we could really make another big step forward.”
The NRAO has about $11 million to improve the telescopes in the next two years. But the expansion, which could happen in 2025, could cost about $1.5 billion.