10 Spectacular Radio Telescopes around the World

17 November 2014

Take a whistle stop tour of some of the most spectacular radio telescopes in the world and find out about what actually goes on there. On almost all of the continents these giants command the landscape as they survey the skies.

Radio telescopes can be found the world over. They are used in radio astronomy, the science of studying, at radio frequencies, celestial objects such as galaxies and stars as well as more difficult to understand phenomena such as Masers and Pulsars. They also collect and track data from space probes and satellites that we have shot up in to the atmosphere and space. Here are some of the more significant and – in terms of design – beautiful radio telescopes in the world.

The Very Large Array (VLA)
Strange things, so it is said, have happened in various locations in and around New Mexico and the Plains of San Augustin is certainly a place that can only add to the State’s extra terrestrial reputation. Part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory the VLA consists of twenty seven independent antennas. The dish diameter is relatively small compared to others in this collection but still come in at an impressive twenty seven meters. However, when all the antennae are working in unison they can act as a single antenna within a diameter of almost twenty three miles.

Now for the science – the VLA has investigated any number of astronomical issues. Radio galaxies are studied there, as are gamma ray bursts and black holes. It has also been used to receive data from the Voyager 2 spacecraft as it went past Neptune. It is something of a film star in its own right – with an impressive filmography that would induce jealousy in many an upcoming actor. It upstaged Jodie Foster in Contact and was the setting for the start of 2010. You can also see it in the sci-fi films Arrival, Terminator Salvation and Independence Day. It has even featured in a number of pop videos.

Green Bank
A stunning view across the landscape of West Virginia and something seems just a little incongruous. Like something out of a Thunderbirds episode the National Radio Astronomy Observatory appears as if from nowhere. It was placed in the mountains to ensure the best reception of outer space radio signals. Amazingly, the size of the dish is larger than a football feed and the telescope is taller than the Statue of Liberty.

It is the biggest fully steerable radio telescope in the world. That, incidentally, makes it the largest structure on land that can be moved. Its record breaking state is due to the collapse of the previous telescope at the site – a three hundred foot parabolic structure that collapsed in 1988 – that must have been quite a spectacle. It was important, then, that the structural integrity of the new telescope was one hundred percent. It is made from thousands of panels that each has its own motor. The job of these motors is to ensure that the structure keeps it shape – in the face of steep forces such as the wind and, of course, sheer gravity itself.

It operates in several modes. Normal mode is when it is properly and fully functioning. It also has a safe mode which is used for maintenance and effectively shuts the whole thing down. Finally there is snow mode which is used to combat the severe West Virginian winters. In this mode it heats up enough to melt off the snow from its structure. It has been the site of numerous discoveries, including that of three millisecond pulsars and a large magnetic field in the Orion Cluster. It also discovered a hydrogen gas superbubble (a cavity in space that can measure hundred of light years across) over twenty three thousand light years away.

The Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank
It was originally known, on its completion in 1957 as the Mark 1, but is now known the world over as the Lovell Telescope. The dish had a diameter of just over seventy six meters and it is the third largest movable radio telescope on planet earth. Amazingly, it is a symbol of recycling as well – one would imagine that these enormous beasts would have to be made from scratch. However, Britain in the 1950s was not cash rich and the motor systems of the Lovell were made from the gun turret mechanisms of two retired battleships.

The Lovell played an integral role in the history of space exploration. Just after it came in to commission the Russians launched Sputnik 1 – which was the first artificial satellite the world had ever seen. As such, Sputnik 1 was seen as very much part and parcel of the red menace – particularly in the USA. The Lovell was the only radar telescope in the world that was able to track the booster rockets of the Soviet satellite, locating it on 12 October 1957.

The telescope has been used to track a number of probes, including the Pioneer 5, to which it sent commands. It also tracked the soviet Luna 9 probe that landed on the moon in 1966. In an extraordinary cheeky bit of Britishness the chaps at Lovell ‘stole’ the facsimile transmissions of pictures from the moon and they were published by the British press before the Russians had a chance to release them. It has also been used for a large variety of scientific observations, including SETI and measuring the distance between bodies in the solar system.

Arecibo Observatory
A shot from a satellite gives a real feel for the size of this enormous radio telescope. If it looks familiar then you have probably seen the James Bond film, Golden Eye. Outside of the gorgeous town of Arecibo in Puerto Rico (well worth a visit in its own right) is the radio telescope that – at the moment – holds the record for having the world’s largest full dish (or filled aperture if you want to get technical). The radio telescope itself measures three hundred and five meters in diameter.

It has been pivotal in a number of scientific discoveries, for example the reassessment of the rotation of Mercury. Previously it had been thought that Mercury took eighty eight days to rotate but it was determined, with the help of Arecibo that it was in fact only fifty nine. It was also where the first binary pulsar was discovered and it had been important in the Seti@home project. It was also instrumental in locating Soviet radar installations during the Cold War.

To give it its full name, the Parkes Radiothermal Telescope is the pride of Australia. It was put in to play in 1961 and has a sixty four meter dish. Like some of the other telescopes featured here, it has also been in the movies, the most notable being The Dish, a fictional account of its involvement in relaying the images of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon around the world.

Parkes has since its inception been responsible for a number of astronomy firsts. It identified the first quasar way back in 1963 and has also been instrumental in properly mapping for the first time many areas of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. It participated in a number of the NASA missions and projects including the moon missions and the Mars probes in 2004. It received data from the Giotto spacecraft when it was sent to encounter Halley’s Comet in 1989 and also the Cassini Huygens missions to Saturn and its moons in 2005.

Effelsburg, Germany is home to this 100 meter diameter radio telescope. It was opened in 1972 and it was the largest steerable telescope in the world for thirty years. It is involved in surveying the galaxies at a variety of megahertz and is operated by the Max Plank Institute for Radioastronomy. Tours are available, including lectures in German – although you can request English in advance.

Spain is not left out of this list by any means. The IRAM in Andalucía is something that looks quite out of this world. It makes its observations in the millimeter range of wavelengths and is the largest of this type in the world. The Sierra Nevada is a beautiful area and the presence of the IRAM there gives a sight seeing tour of the Pico Veleta peak an extra plus mark for amateur astronomers. It attracts hundreds of scientists each year who book time in order to carry out their research at millimeter wavelengths. The spectroscopy which is at ultra high resolution allows the study of chemistry in the universe, such as the formation of stars in the Milky Way and neighboring galaxies – out to the furthest known in the universe.

Again, to get an idea of the size of this telescope, take a look at the bottom left of the picture. There in that corner you will see a motor vehicle – looking very much like a child’s toy.

Large Millimeter Telescope – Mexico
You may not automatically associate Mexico with radio telescopes or with skiing but in both cases you would be wrong. The Large Millimeter Telescope (in Spanish, the Gran Telescopio Milimétrico) is situated at the top of the fifth highest mountain in Mexico, the Sierra Negra. It can only be hoped that the scientists who visit there also have a keen interest in snow sports.

It is the largest single aperture telescope in its frequency range in the world and the active surface of the telescope is an amazing fifty meters in diameter. The wavelengths that it uses allow scientists to see areas in space that were previously obscured by dust. It took ten years to build and cost over one hundred million dollars, seventy percent funded by the Mexican government and thirty by that of the USA.

Simeiz – Crimea
At the foot of mount Koshka in the Crimea stands the Simeiz – a twenty two meter radio telescope that is used for both millimeter and centimeter ranges of radio waves. It is quite a glorious place to put a telescope of this kind and understandably attracts scientists from throughout the world. It currently investigates stellar and solar activities and monitors Active Galactic Nuclei. It was constructed in 1965 and as can be seen here, is situated on a particularly beautiful part of the Black Sea known as the Blue Gulf. It has, surprisingly, participated with United States scientists since the 1960s. As many of the old Soviet leaders use to holiday in this beautiful part of the world, one can only wonder how much work actually gets done there.

Nobeyama Radio Observatory
If you look at the base of the NRO, you can see a man taking a photo – that should give you an idea of scale here. The tenth and final radio telescope in this collection is situated in Nobeyama in Japan. The village from which it takes its name is situated in the Japanese Alps and is at an elevation of almost one thousand four hundred meters. The telescope that stands out here is the single dish which has a diameter of forty five meters although there is also an array of six radio telescopes with ten meter diameters situated at the same observatory.

Discoveries here include a supermassive black hole and also some interstellar molecules. However, the research that goes on here also includes how stars are made and the activities and structures of galaxies. An amazing place to visit, no doubt.

Additional Image Credits
Very Large Array - Flickr User Tom Coates

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