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Scientists say upgrades planned for the Very Large Array in New Mexico – which recently took a step forward with a major financial award – may help answer centuries-old questions like:
How did we get here?
Are we alone in the universe?
The National Science Foundation recently awarded the National Radio Astronomy Observatory $23 million to design and develop a prototype antenna for the Next Generation Very Large Array, or ngVLA. That antenna will be tested at the existing Y-shaped array of dish antennas rising out of the high plains in western New Mexico, about 50 miles west of Socorro, and, if approved, located at multiple sites around North America.
To take a generational step forward, there are plans over the next 15 years to add hundreds of additional dish antennas to complement the existing radio wave observatory. The installation started making observations of space 40 years ago.
Astronomers who work on the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array radio astronomy observatory say the ngVLA project will improve what is arguably already the world’s foremost radio telescope system.
“Even in its current state, the VLA is, by a long way, the world’s premier radio telescope facility. It’s been that way since it was opened. It’s still doing amazing science,” said Tony Beasley, the director of the NRAO, which operates the VLA. “We’re talking about building an instrument, which is basically an order of magnitude more sensitive.”
The VLA currently has 28 dish antennas, which detect radio wave signals in space. The plan is to increase the system to 263 dish antennas.
Most of the new antennas will be about 60 feet in diameter with 20-foot dishes in the center of each structure. There will be a dense cluster of antennas at the current VLA site and other antennas spread to west Texas, eastern Arizona and northern Mexico. There will also be far-flung antennas in Hawaii, Washington, California, Iowa, West Virginia, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to the NRAO’s website.
“When you have all the antennas very far apart, like spread across the U.S., you can image a small region of sky with incredibly high resolution,” said Eric Murphy, NRAO’s Project Scientist for ngVLA.
The entire ngVLA project is expected to cost about $2.4 billion, with money coming from the National Science Foundation, U.S. government agencies and international partners, said Dave Finley, a spokesman for the NRAO.
All the antennas will be operated from the existing VLA site west of Socorro and an NRAO facility in the city, as well as a to-be-determined metropolitan area, according to the NRAO’s website.
The project will give the system greater powers to study far-away black holes, galaxies and planets, Beasley said.
The next-generation array also will enhance the system’s ability to search for potential intelligent extraterrestrial life. Last year, the NRAO reached an agreement with the SETI Institute, an organization dedicated to the search.
The agreement allows for data collected at the VLA during normal observations to also be analyzed by separate equipment being built by the SETI Institute. The system is called COSMIC: the Commensal Open Source Multimode Interferometer Cluster.
That project will allow the institute to examine massive amounts of radio observation data to consider if the signals could be artificially created, and a sign of alien intelligence in the universe, Murphy said.
“What the SETI system does is it searches … to see if it can detect a steady signal,” Murphy said. “While the normal observation is looking at this distant galaxy … these powerful back-end systems sit on the end of the telescope, and just continuously watch the data signal going forward. … It is constantly gathering data all the time.”
Construction could begin in 2026 and the system could come online by 2029, with full scientific operations expected to be up and running by 2035, according to a NRAO news release.
The NRAO has signed an agreement with mtex antenna technology gmbh, a German firm, to develop a production-ready design and produce the prototype, which will be tested at the original VLA site in New Mexico.
Contruction at the current VLA location began in the 1970s and it was completed in 1980. The antennas detect faint cosmic radio waves, which are far fainter than radio waves on earth. The Plains of St. Agustin northwest of Socorro, was chosen as the VLA site because of its remoteness and because the area is ringed by mountains, which act as a buffer to keep out radio interference.
Since coming online, the system has made many major scientific breakthroughs, Beasley said. The rotation rate of the planet Mercury, understanding the nature of collapsing black holes and assisting in recording the world’s first photo of a collapsing black hole are among some of the more notable projects the VLA was a part of, he said.
Beasley said the improvement expected from ngVLA will help scientists try to answer questions about how life formed on Earth and whether there life beyond our planet.
“So one of the big science cases for ngVLA is that we’ll have the sensitivity and resolution to actually be able to make movies of planets forming around nearby stars, young stars. And when we do that, we can also measure the chemistry of the materials that are forming these planets,” he said. “And so you can learn whether or not there are organic molecules like water and simple carbon chain molecules and so on.”