APEX telescope takes part in sharpest observation ever

Jul 18, 2012
This is an artist's impression of the quasar 3C 279. Astronomers connected the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX), in Chile, to the Submillimeter Array (SMA) in Hawaii, USA, and the Submillimeter Telescope (SMT) in Arizona, USA, for the first time, to make the sharpest observations ever, of the center of a distant galaxy, the bright quasar 3C 279. Quasars are the very bright centres of distant galaxies that are powered by supermassive black holes. This quasar contains a black hole with a mass about one billion times that of the sun, and is so far from Earth that its light has taken more than 5 billion years to reach us. The team were able to probe scales of less than a light-year across the quasar -- a remarkable achievement for a target that is billions of light-years away. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

(Phys.org) -- An international team of astronomers has observed the heart of a distant quasar with unprecedented sharpness, two million times finer than human vision. The observations, made by connecting the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) telescope to two others on different continents for the first time, is a crucial step towards the dramatic scientific goal of the “Event Horizon Telescope” project: imaging the supermassive black holes at the centre of our own galaxy and others.

connected APEX, in Chile, to the Submillimeter Array (SMA) in Hawaii, USA, and the Submillimeter (SMT) in Arizona, USA. They were able to make the sharpest direct observation ever, of the centre of a distant galaxy, the bright quasar 3C 279, which contains a supermassive black hole with a mass about one billion times that of the Sun, and is so far from Earth that its light has taken more than 5 billion years to reach us. APEX is a collaboration between the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR), the Onsala Space Observatory (OSO) and ESO. APEX is operated by ESO.

The telescopes were linked using a technique known as Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI). Larger telescopes can make sharper observations, and interferometry allows multiple telescopes to act like a single telescope as large as the separation -- or "baseline" -- between them. Using VLBI, the sharpest observations can be achieved by making the separation between telescopes as large as possible. For their quasar observations, the team used the three telescopes to create an interferometer with transcontinental baseline lengths of 9447 km from Chile to Hawaii, 7174 km from Chile to Arizona and 4627 km from Arizona to Hawaii. Connecting APEX in Chile to the network was crucial, as it contributed the longest baselines.

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This is an artist’s impression of the quasar 3C 279. Astronomers connected the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX), in Chile, to the Submillimeter Array (SMA) in Hawaii, USA, and the Submillimeter Telescope (SMT) in Arizona, USA for the first time, to make the sharpest observations ever, of the centre of a distant galaxy, the bright quasar 3C 279. Quasars are the very bright centres of distant galaxies that are powered by supermassive black holes. This quasar contains a black hole with a mass about one billion times that of the Sun, and is so far from Earth that its light has taken more than 5 billion years to reach us. The team were able to probe scales of less than a light-year across the quasar — a remarkable achievement for a target that is billions of light-years away. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The observations were made in radio waves with a wavelength of 1.3 millimetres. This is the first time observations at a wavelength as short as this have been made using such long baselines. The observations achieved a sharpness, or angular resolution, of just 28 microarcseconds -- about 8 billionths of a degree. This represents the ability to distinguish details an amazing two million times sharper than human vision. Observations this sharp can probe scales of less than a light-year across the quasar -- a remarkable achievement for a target that is billions of light-years away.

The observations represent a new milestone towards imaging supermassive and the regions around them. In future it is planned to connect even more telescopes in this way to create the so-called Telescope. The Event Horizon Telescope will be able to image the shadow of the supermassive black hole in the centre of our Milky Way galaxy, as well as others in nearby galaxies. The shadow -- a dark region seen against a brighter background -- is caused by the bending of light by the black hole, and would be the first direct observational evidence for the existence of a black hole's event horizon, the boundary from within which not even light can escape.

Astronomers connected the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX), in Chile, to the Submillimeter Array (SMA) in Hawaii, USA, and the Submillimeter Telescope (SMT) in Arizona, USA for the first time, to make the sharpest observation ever of the centre of a distant galaxy, the bright quasar 3C 279. The telescopes were linked using a technique known as Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI). Larger telescopes can make sharper observations, and interferometry allows multiple telescopes to act like a single telescope as large as the separation — or “baseline” — between them. The baseline length from Chile (APEX) to Hawaii (SMA) is 9447 km, from Chile to Arizona (SMT) 7174 km, and from Arizona to Hawaii 4627 km. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

The experiment marks the first time that APEX has taken part in VLBI observations, and is the culmination of three years hard work at APEX's high altitude site on the 5000-metre plateau of Chajnantor in the Chilean Andes, where the atmospheric pressure is only about half that at sea level. To make APEX ready for VLBI, scientists from Germany and Sweden installed new digital data acquisition systems, a very precise atomic clock, and pressurised data recorders capable of recording 4 gigabits per second for many hours under challenging environmental conditions. The data -- 4 terabytes from each telescope -- were shipped to Germany on hard drives and processed at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn.

The successful addition of APEX is also important for another reason. It shares its location and many aspects of its technology with the new Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope. ALMA is currently under construction and will finally consist of 54 dishes with the same 12-metre diameter as , plus 12 smaller dishes with a diameter of 7 metres. The possibility of connecting ALMA to the network is currently being studied. With the vastly increased collecting area of ALMA's dishes, the observations could achieve 10 times better sensitivity than these initial tests. This would put the shadow of the Milky Way's supermassive black hole within reach for future .

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User comments : 12

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AWaB
5 / 5 (4) Jul 18, 2012
I've been reading about the Event Horizon telescope for the last couple of years. I'm very intrigued and, quite honestly, stoked about what it will reveal. Good job to all of the scientists and engineers working on this project.
antialias_physorg
3.7 / 5 (6) Jul 18, 2012
The data -- 4 terabytes from each telescope -- were shipped to Germany on hard drives and processed at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn.

This is sort of funny. We have the ability to see astronomical objects with unprecedented detail but not the ability to transfer this amount of data securely and efficiently halfway around the globe from places halway out in the sticks (not that Hawaii and Arizona are THAT much out of the way of any kind of decent data infrastructure.
evropej
4.1 / 5 (7) Jul 18, 2012
Nice render with adobe after effects, trapcode or copilot plugin. Why no real footage?
El_Nose
5 / 5 (5) Jul 18, 2012
@ant

Its not that its about secure/effiecient transport in this case.

12 TB of data transfer its just faster to fly the data than to wait for a download of the data. Decent data structure has nothing to do with it. Do the math. Even at a high data commercial rate say 20 Mbps ( .5 * T3) it would take ~ 1.6 Million seconds - or 19 days with no interruption.

If point to point they had a OC3 line ( 155 Mbps) which is really pricey it would take two days per 4 TB.

So the question becomes at what speed do you need to transfer 12 TB in less than say 8 hours?

Around 3.4 Gbps a little faster than a OC 48 line ( 2.5 Gbps ) so say a OC48 OC12 ( 622 Mbps )

T1 - 1.544 Mbps - 250 - 500 USD per month
T3 - 43.232 Mbps - 4k - 16k USD
OC3 - 155 Mbps - 30k - 45k USD
OC12 - 622 Mbps - 100k - 150k
OC48 - 2.5 Gbps - can't find a price assume:250 - 400k
OC192 - 9.6 Gpbs - at least 4x OC48

This is a matter of cost; moving data is expensive
calculation is w\o tcp/ip data overhead
Deathclock
2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 18, 2012
Kevinrtrs: No, that is not an actual image of a black hole... now you don't have to ask.
Red Badger
5 / 5 (1) Jul 18, 2012
Maybe all they had was a 56k modem.......
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (4) Jul 18, 2012
12 TB of data transfer its just faster to fly the data than to wait for a download of the data.

I actually did the math...but I got confused when they said that they 'shipped' the data to Germany. I thought that meant "sent by ship" (otherwise I'd have expected the sentence to read "...were flown to Germany"). But I now realize that 'shipped' is just a generic term in English for 'sent via any form of physical transport'.

My bad.

You live an you learn...
flashgordon
5 / 5 (2) Jul 18, 2012
Spectr R has made images of quasar cores and pulsars; well, the images are pixel-like; they are not sexy hubble space telescope images; but, they are also just a beginning!

I'd like to see them and this event-horizons effort to try Cygnus X-1!
GSwift7
5 / 5 (3) Jul 18, 2012
Why no real footage?


It's not ready yet. They have to proces the data to produce an image. This kind of "image" isn't as simple as combining red green and blue in a CRT monitor. They'll release the image when they have it. It takes some manual work because there's no software that does this 100% correct without some adjustments. We are litterally still learning how to do this efficiently. If you don't over-lay the data from each telescope exactly right, then you create artefacts and decrease the sharpness of the image rather than make it better. They must account for imperfections in each dish as well as atmospheric interference.
Vendicar_Decarian
1 / 5 (1) Jul 19, 2012
Because no image was produced, just radio intensity fringes.

"Why no real footage? - Floopie
GSwift7
4 / 5 (4) Jul 19, 2012
Because no image was produced, just radio intensity fringes


Sometimes it's better to keep quiet and have people wonder if you are stupid, rather than open your mouth and prove it.

They will produce an image by assigning colors to radio frequencies, just like we do with every radio telescope, microwave telescope, infrared telescope and ultra violet telescope. It just takes time (weeks, maybe months) to do the image processing on that much data, and they just got the data. They probably need to write an image processing algorithm from scratch to combine the signals from three different telescopes. Each of the telescopes has a different resolution, so it's not as easy as combining several images from the same telescope using different filters.
extinct
1 / 5 (1) Jul 22, 2012
so, where are the pictures? all I see is "artist's illustration"