Science and technology go hand in hand. Research and exploration foster brilliant new inventions, while technological advancements revolutionize the way we learn about and understand the world around us. This has never been truer than in the field of space exploration, where only by creating more advanced, more highly evolved machinery have we been able to delve into the farthest depths of the universe. The latest addition to Earth’s fleet of sky searchers is the Owens Valley Long Wavelength Array (OV-LWA), a radio telescope array operating at the Owens Valley Radio Observatory in California. The new telescope, developed by the best and the brightest astronomers from Caltech, JPL, Harvard University, the University of New Mexico, Virginia Tech, and the Naval Research Laboratory, has the ability to simultaneously image the entire sky at radio wavelengths with unmatched speed.
Just to put into perspective the amazing feat that this new invention is accomplishing, here are some rough numbers on the project. It combines the observing power of more than 250 antennas spread out over a desert area spanning the length of roughly 450 football fields. When operating at full speed, it produces 25 terabytes of data every day, making it one of the most data-intensive telescopes in the known world. To put things further into perspective, it would take more than 5,000 DVDs to store one single day’s worth of collected data. It has its own supercomputer to deliver the data to a second computer cluster, the All-Sky Transient Monitor, using graphics processing units similar to those found in modern computer games.
Scientists are currently utilizing the array to study extrasolar space weather like auroras, which are essentially the interaction of nearby stars and their orbiting planets. Our Sun interacts with planets in our solar system in this way, which begs the question – do stars beyond our Sun have planets that they interact with similarly? And if so, what is their potential for harboring life? The Owens Valley array hopes to answer some of these questions by studying the strength of these planets’ magnetic fields, which were a critical factor in the development of life here on Earth. Additionally, it is hoped that the array will eventually be the key to unlocking some of the earliest secrets of our universe. As Gregg Hallinan, an assistant professor of astronomy at Caltech and OV-LWA’s principal investigator explains, “weak radiation from the early universe is obscured by the radio emission from our own galaxy, which is about a million times brighter than the signal itself”. Basically, there is a bright fog blocking our view that even the strongest, most innovative of telescopic inventions has not been able to breach. In the future, however, the array may be able to cut through this fog and actually detect traces of radio light from when the first stars and galaxies were born, providing answers about our universe that have until now been unreachable.
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