Catching Waves in Orbit

2 July 1997 7:00 pm

Astronomers released today the first images made with the help of a new orbiting radio telescope. Although the images--which show a powerful jet of subatomic particles spewing from a quasar--are not groundbreaking themselves, they suggest that the new system can provide detailed views of some of the most energetic--and mysterious--objects in the universe.

The radio antenna, called HALCA, is the first space-based one designed for interferometry, a technique that allows scientists to combine data from far-flung telescopes and create the equivalent of an enormous collecting dish. The larger the dish, the more detailed the images. HALCA works in concert with ground-based telescopes, allowing astronomers to simulate a dish with a diameter greater than 30,000 kilometers and a resolving power--the ability to detect fine details--more than 100 times higher than that of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Astronomers hope that HALCA, built by scientists at the Japanese Institute for Space and Astronautical Science and launched in February, will allow them to make precise observations of objects that emit radio waves, including quasars and black holes. The image below of quasar 1156+295, which is 6.5 billion light-years from Earth, shows unprecedented detail of the particle jet emanating from the quasar, which may harbor a black hole, says astronomer Jonathan Romney of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, New Mexico, which is part of the international team that uses HALCA. No one is sure how the jets are formed, he says, but a clearer picture of their source may help scientists solve that mystery. >

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