Seeing stars, and more

October 31, 2023

Science

The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Radio Telescope shown in the foreground at night, with the constellation Orion visible in the sky above
The enormous telescope, photographed from a vantage point one mile away 
Photograph by Dave Green

Astrophysicist and professor Jack Singal received a National Science Foundation grant of nearly $600,000 for a research project that will result in a new map focused on sky brightness in radio waves. Astronomers study radio waves and other light to better understand the universe.

Singal and his research partner, Richard Bradley of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, will use the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia — the world’s largest steerable, clear-aperture telescope — along with custom instrumentation they are developing. The telescope has a diameter of more than 100 meters, meaning an entire football field would fit across it. The result of their project will be an absolutely calibrated map of the diffuse radio emission over nearly the entire sky.

“This project will use the defining features of the Green Bank Telescope, which is unique in the world, along with our custom radio receiver and feed antenna, so it is a beautiful marriage of big-facility and small-group research,” Singal said.

The map will be the first large-scale measurement of the actual absolute brightness level of diffuse radio emission in more than 40 years, rather than a comparison of brightness in different regions of the sky, as has been typical.

Experts expect the map will be a transformative tool for investigating phenomena within and beyond the Milky Way that depend on an understanding of diffuse radio emission. It will aid in an array of future astrophysics investigations and have applications in projects rooted in radio astronomy.