Saturday, June 28, 2008

What Radio Astronomers “See”

Insomnia is a valuable affliction for optical astronomers, who need to make good use of the hours of darkness when the sun is on the other side of the earth. But as Karl Jansky discovered so many years ago, the sun is not a particularly bright radio source. In consequence, radio astronomers (and radio telescopes) can work night and day.
The VLA, for example, gathers data (or runs tests) 24 hours a day, 363 days a year. Not only is darkness not required, but you can even make radio observations through a cloud-filled sky. The senior author of this book even observed a distant star-forming region in the midst of a storm during which lightning struck near the VLA and disabled it for a few minutes.
As the Dutch astronomer Jan Oort realized after reading Reber’s work in the 1940s, radio waves opened new vistas into the Milky Way and beyond. Radio astronomers can observe objects whose visible light doesn’t reach the earth because of obscuration by interstellar dust or simply because they emit little or no visible light. The fantastic objects known as quasars, pulsars, and the regions around black holes—all of which we will encounter later in this book—are often faint or invisible optically, but do emit radio waves.
The spiral form of our own Galaxy was first mapped using the 21 cm radio spectral line from neutral (cold) hydrogen atoms, and the discovery of complex molecules between the stars was made at radio frequencies.
The very center of our own Milky Way Galaxy is hidden from optical probing, so that most of what we know of our galactic center has come from infrared and radio observation. Since radio interferometers are detecting an interference pattern, radio data has to be processed in ways different from optical data. But the end result is either a radio image, showing the brightness of the source on the sky, or a radio spectrum, showing a spectral line or lines.

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