What’s Radio Astronomy?

February 15, 2019 - Comment

Article by Michael Burton, Director of the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium Our view of the cosmos is biased by the vista that’s obvious to our eyes.  That is what the view in what we name the optically seen portion of the spectrum. To the unaided eye it’s a view of a universe stuffed with stars,

Article by Michael Burton, Director of the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium

Our view of the cosmos is biased by the vista that’s obvious to our eyes.  That is what the view in what we name the optically seen portion of the spectrum. To the unaided eye it’s a view of a universe stuffed with stars, along with 5 planets, one Moon and naturally the Solar. When augmented with a telescope, our eyes can then see a universe stuffed with galaxies – large cities of stars.

But this isn’t a consultant view of the universe. It misses many kinds of astronomical objects. The electromagnetic spectrum stretches from low power radio waves to extraordinarily excessive power gamma rays. Optical gentle takes up only a tiny portion of this spectrum, from blue gentle with a wavelength of zero.four microns, to pink gentle with a wavelength of zero.7 microns. A micron is a millionth of a metre, and to present that some perspective, the standard human hair is about 50 microns thick. So very small!

Schematic diagram displaying the electromagnetic spectrum, from the radio bands to gamma rays. Credit score: wikipedia.

Evolution has given us eyes attentive to optical gentle as that is the dominant portion of the electromagnetic spectrum emitted by our native star, the Solar. Our ambiance, by success, additionally occurs to be clear to optical radiation. So not solely do the Solar’s rays attain us direct, so too does the sunshine from the celebs within the sky.

If our eyes had advanced to be delicate to infrared gentle, as an example, radiation of barely longer wavelength to optical gentle, they’d have been delicate to the warmth emitted by objects.  We’d have been in a position to see within the “darkish”.  Nonetheless, we might even have been largely unaware of the spectacle of the starry sky. For the Earth’s ambiance additionally emits strongly within the infrared, so drowning out the weaker infrared gentle that comes from the celebs. It’s attention-grabbing to invest how civilisation might need advanced in such circumstances, with out the vista of the evening sky that finally stirred the event of the scientific methodology that underpins our trendy, technologically-based society.

The Milky Manner seen in optical wavelengths (high) and radio wavelengths (backside). The optical picture reveals stars which are comparatively close by to the Solar and obscuration by clouds of mud. The radio picture present atomic hydrogen gasoline from proper throughout the Galaxy. Credit score: NASA.

There may be one other area of the spectrum the place radiation can attain us immediately from distant objects within the cosmos. That’s within the radio wavebands. Radiation with wavelengths from about 1cm to 10m can go largely unobstructed by the ambiance and so be detected by telescopes on the bottom. Radio astronomy is anxious with the measurement of such radiation after which utilizing it to higher perceive the character of celestial objects.

Karl Janksy with the antenna he constructed to find the primary cosmic supply of radio waves in 1933. Picture credit score: Nationwide Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).

We’re used to receiving radio indicators broadcast by TV and radio stations.  Nonetheless it was an amazing shock when, in 1933, Karl Jansky detected radio emission from house. Utilizing a radio antenna that he constructed that’s not in contrast to, in design, that now used for TV aerials, he was investigating the static interference in radio transmissions. In doing so he unexpectedly found a radio supply of cosmic origin coming from the path of the centre of our Galaxy.

Whereas some radio telescopes of right this moment nonetheless do look a bit like Jansky’s unique antenna – arrays of dipoles delicate to the longest wavelength radiation – most radio telescopes now look a lot nearer to optical telescopes in type. Besides that they’re (usually) far, far larger! Measurement is important for a radio telescope if picture readability is desired. For the picture decision that any telescope can obtain is immediately proportional to the wavelength of the radiation being measured, divided by the diameter of the telescope. Since radio waves are over 1,000,000 instances longer than optical waves, this implies a radio telescope must be 1,000,000 instances bigger to attain the identical picture high quality!

The 4m diameter Anglo Australian Telescope in Australia, a typical optical telescope utilized by skilled astronomers. Credit score: David Malin, Australian Astronomical Observatory.

The Lovell radio telescope at Jodrell Financial institution Observatory. At 76m in diameter it’s the largest telescope within the British Isles. Credit score Jodrell Financial institution Radio Observatory.


Truly it’s extra difficult than this as a result of the ambiance blurs the standard of optical photos. Radio telescopes can be mixed collectively to attain the decision of a single telescope whose diameter is the dimensions of their distance aside, a way often called interferometry. Although the sensitivity is barely the equal of the accumulating space of the person dishes, not the world they’re unfold over. Nonetheless, radio astronomers have been in a position to obtain exceptional constancy of their finest photos, much better than that of one of the best optical photos obtained of astronomical sources.

Whereas optical astronomy is basically involved with the research of stars, which emit a lot of their radiation in these bands, radio astronomy is usually involved with learning the gasoline of interstellar and intergalactic house. Only a few stars emit vital quantities of radio emission. Nonetheless, clouds of gasoline in house are prolific emitters of radio waves.

Centaurus A within the optical. A large mud lane runs throughout the picture, orthogonal to the radio jet. Credit score: European Southern Observatory.

The galaxy Centaurus A seen within the radio. An unlimited jet of relativistic plasma is seen being expelled from close to to the supermassive black gap in its core. Credit score: Nationwide Radio Astronomy Observatory.

The centre of our Milky Manner Galaxy seen in radio. Spiral-shaped filaments of gasoline are seen, that are illuminated by the extreme radiation from the celebs. Credit score: Nationwide Radio Astronomy Observatory.


Clouds of atomic gasoline – largely hydrogen atoms in house – emit radiation with a wavelength of 21 cm. Molecules emit radiation of upper frequency (and shorter wavelength). As an example, the carbon monoxide molecule emits at a wavelength of three mm. Its measurement permits us to check the areas the place stars type in our Galaxy, the cores of large molecular clouds discovered principally within the central airplane of our Galaxy. [Note: carbon monoxide is the second most common molecule in space. However the vastly more abundant hydrogen molecule does not, in general, emit radiation, so it cannot be studied directly in space except in special circumstances]. Lastly the recent, ionised gasoline round luminous stars emits radiation from remoted electrons within the gasoline, as they swing by the protons. This enables astronomers to check the extreme exercise and mass loss from these stars, a central a part of the method that’s recycling materials from the celebs into the gasoline that happens as a part of the galactic ecosystem.

The I-LOFAR radio telescope at Birr Fortress with the Milky Manner over head. I-LOFAR is led by an Irish consortium from Trinity of which Armagh is a member (Credit score: I-LOFAR Intern Luis Alberto Canizares).

The centre of our Milky Manner Galaxy seen within the infrared. The view is dominated by stars. Credit score: Michael Burton, Anglo Australian Telescope.

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