Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Honeymoon Vacationing with the Very Long Baseline Array

Personal life has gotten in the way of space blogging lately, but blogging will return! In the meantime, here's a quick story that mixes the two.

In February, I was in St. Croix, US Virgin Islands with my husband on our honeymoon. St. Croix is the largest of the three USVIs, but still small, roughly 28 by 7 miles (or 45 by 11 km), small enough that we were able to explore the entire island. For the first half of our stay, we stayed in the more desert landscape of the east side of the island, not far from the Very Long Baseline Array station.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory's VLBA is an interferometer with a set of 10 radio antennas spanning from as far west as Hawaii and as far east as St. Croix (the easternmost point of the United States, according to the monument we saw at Point Udall). Each antenna is 25 meters, identical, and controlled from an operations center in New Mexico. It observes in the frequencies of 1.2 GHz to 96 GHz (28 cm to 3 mm wavelengths) with around a 10 micro-arcsecond resolution. It is used to research the 3D structure of the Milky Way, active galactic nuclei, black holes, dark energy, and the radio afterglow of gamma-ray bursts which is related to my master's degree research.

Yes, I was on my honeymoon, but I'm also a curious astronomer with a very supportive husband. Of course we had to stop by! We drove up to the gate and rang the doorbell. When the technician approached, I said, “Hi, I'm an astronomer on my honeymoon, can we come in?”

I then explained that I actually only did X-ray and gamma-ray astronomy and don't know much about radio telescope observations except what I've learned in classes. I do have two degrees in astrophysics, after all. Unfortunately, the technician was too busy for weeks to give any tours, but he was kind enough to talk to us for a while at the gate. He explained the antenna operations and maintenance as well as the array's popularity. My husband and I learned a lot. Next time we find ourselves on the island, we'll stop by again to see if we can get the behind-the-scenes tour.

VLBA Antenna, St. Croix, February 4, 2015

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