We’re Observing at the Very Large Array!

I’m really excited to be able to post that galaxies selected with the help of Galaxy Zoo classifications are being observed at the VLA (Very Large Array) in New Mexico, possibly right now.


It’s the Very Large Array!

The funny thing about observing at the VLA is that you do all of the work for the actual observations in advance.

The VLA runs in queue mode – as an observer you have to submit very (very) detailed information about what you want the telescope to do during your session (called a “scheduling block”) and a set of constraints about when it’s OK to run that (for example you tell them when the galaxy is actually up in the sky above the telescope!). Then the telescope operators pick from the available pool of scheduling blocks at any time to make best use of the array.

This means after you submit the scheduling blocks you just have to sit and wait until you start getting notifications from VLA that your galaxies have been observed. The observing semester for the B-array configuration started on 4th October (had a pause for the US shutdown) and runs until the 13th January 2014. I’m happy to report that we started getting notifications in late November of the first of our 2 hour scheduling blocks  having been observed. At the time of writing four of our galaxies have each been observed at least once (we need six repeat visits to each one to get the depth of data we’d like) for a total of 16 hours of VLA time. I’ve been getting notifications every couple of days – which means that as I write this the VLA could be observing one of our galaxies!

Since making these very detailed observation files is the observing prodecure at the VLA –  it takes the length of time you’d expect given that…..

So, in September  in-between a crazy travel schedule, and with a lot of help from our collaborator Kelley Hess at Cape Town, I spent a lot of time scheduling VLA observations of some very interesting very gas rich and very strongly barred galaxies we identified in the Galaxy Zoo 2 sample (the bit which overlaps with the ALFALFA survey which measures total HI gas in each galaxy).

We have been granted time to observe up to 7 of these fascinating objects (depending on scheduling constraints at the VLA) which I think may reveal some really interesting physics about how bars drive gas around in the discs of galaxies.

You might notice from the picture (and the name) that the VLA is not a “normal telescope”. It’s what astronomers call a radio interferometer. Signals are collected from 27 separate antennas and combined in a computer. This means that as well as observing sources for flux calibration (so we can link how bright our target is through the telescope with physical units) we also have to observe, roughly every 20 minutes or so a “phase calibrator” to be able to know how to correctly add the signals together from each of the antennae (to add them “in phase”).

So a single scheduling block lasting 2 hours for one of our sources comprises:

1. Information to tell the VLA where to slew initially and what instrumentation to use (how to “tune” it to the frequency we know the HI in the galaxy will emit at).

2. A short observation of a known bright source for flux calibration.

Then there’s a loop of

a. Phase calibration

b. Source observation

c. Phase calibration

d. Source observation

and so on – ending with a Phase calibration (on Kelley’s advice we’ll do 5 source observations, and 6 phase calibrations). We have a total of 6 of these blocks for each galaxy, that makes 12 hours of telescope resulting in about 10 hours of collecting 21cm photons per galaxy.

We have to check which times all these sources are visible to the VLA, and set durations for each part which give enough slew time and on source time wherever the sources are on the sky. And this all has to add up exactly to 2 hours to fit the scheduling block.

The benefit of this though is a telescope which acts like it’s much larger than you could ever physically build. We’re trying to detect emission from atomic hydrogen in these galaxies which emits at 21cm. So we need a really large telescope to get a sharp picture.

And just to end, because they’re lovely, here are the four galaxies the VLA has observed so far in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey visible light images.





Thanks again for your help finding these rare and interesting galaxies. They’re rare, because they’re so gas rich and strongly barred – we have previously posted about how we showed strong bars are rare in galaxies with lots of atomic hydrogen. Hopefully we’ll have some exciting results to share once we’ve analysed these data.

(PS. That takes a lot of time too – it’ll be almost 1TB of data to process in total!).

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About karenlmasters

Astronomer at Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, University of Portsmouth. Project Scientist for Galaxy Zoo. Spokesperson for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Busy having fun with astronomy!

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