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E-VLBI with HartRAO 2008/05/05

South Africa participated in world wide network of real time astronomical research during the first week of May 2008. In a milestone VLBI (Very Long Baseline Interferometry) experiment, the radio astronomy dish at Hartebeesthoek linked up with observatories in Poland, Sweden, Italy, the UK (and even briefly to ARECIBO in Puerto Rico) to form a giant virtual telescope. Data was shared between these observatories - via the internet - at a data transfer rate of 32 Mb/s. This real time VLBI collaboration is known as e-VLBI.

VLBI (Very Long Baseline Interferometry) is a technique used by radio astronomers to image the sky with ultra-high resolution and in great detail, including the most distant and faintest regions in space, where we find the enigmatic quasars.

Instead of using a single radio dish, arrays of telescopes are linked together around the globe to create a more powerful and more sensitive instrument. The longer the baselines, the more detail can be discerned. This is why the baseline to South Africa is important and why European astronomers want to use the South African facility.

"This is an exciting glimpse of future radio astronomy," says Professor Roy Booth, Director at the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory. "We will be able to observe unpredictable and unusual astronomical phenomena as they happen."

In the past, VLBI data had to be recorded on tape and shipped to a central processing facility for analysis that could take several months, he explains. "Now, with e-VLBI, the world's astronomers are analysing events as they happen. With the new high-bandwidth connection at HartRAO South Africa is able to take part in this cutting edge astronomy."

The Department of Science and Technology recently invested in superfast broadband connectivity at HartRAO as part of its SANReN project (South African National Research Network). The upgrade was implemented by the CSIR's Meraka Institute. This high speed connectivity is also required for South Africa's participation in the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project.

A top delegation from the European Union visited HartRAO to observe the first experiment and share the excitement with local astronomers. The delegation was led by Jose Manuel Maria Rodriguez, Director-General of the EU's Directorate-General Research and Antti Peltomaki, Deputy Director-General, Directorate-General Information Society and Media.

More transatlantic e-VLBI experiments are planned for the months ahead. South African astronomers are collaborating with the European VLBI Network (www.evlbi.org). It is part of EXPReS (Express Production Real-time e-VLBI Service), a three-year project funded by the European Commission with the objective of creating a distributed, large-scale astronomical instrument of continental and intercontinental dimensions. EXPReS is coordinated by JIVE (www.jive.nl), the Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe, which is hosted by ASTRON (www.astron.nl), the Netherlands Foundation for Research in Astronomy, in Dwingeloo, the Netherlands.

monitoring evlbi
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Jonathan Quick monitors the e-VLBI in the HartRAO control room.

EU delegation in control room
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The EU delegation in the HartRAO control room. Roy Booth (HartRAO) is at far left. Justin Jonas (Rhodes University / SA SKA / KAT) is second from right, no jacket. Jonathan Quick (HartRAO) is far right.

realtime fringes
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Plot of realtime interference fringes being obtained with the Hartebeesthoek 26m radio telescope.

EU delegation at Hart
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The EU delegation in front of the HartRAO building with Justin Jonas (Rhodes University / SA SKA / KAT, second from left) and Roy Booth (HartRAO, fifth from right).

EU delegation at XDM
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The EU delegation visit the eXperimental Development Model (XDM) of the Karoo Array Telescope.

evlbi evn
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E-VLBI with the European VLBI Network