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New telescope as big as Earth itself

By Richard Stenger (CNN)

A global network of dishes can work together as if they were a radio observatory with a diameter as large as our planet, according to scientists.
A global network of dishes can work together as if they were a radio observatory with a diameter as large as our planet, according to scientists.

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(CNN) -- Astronomers have fashioned an Earth-sized virtual radio telescope that can distinguish celestial features 3,000 times smaller than the those observed by the Hubble Space Telescope.

The device, which uses atomic clocks and a custom supercomputer to link together radio dishes on three continents, is the most powerful radio observatory ever, according to scientists.

"The resolution achieved by this telescope is the equivalent of sitting in New York and being able to see the dimples on a golf ball in Los Angeles," astronomer Sheperd Doeleman said this week.

Doeleman is an astronomer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Haystack Observatory, which helped create the global instrument.

The telescope will be used to look closer into the hearts of certain galaxies that for unknown reasons unleash huge amounts of energy. So-called active galaxies emit far more radiation than the sum of their resident stars.

Scientists suspect the sources are central super massive black holes, each with millions or billions of times the mass of the sun. Radio observatories have detected fast-moving particle streams gushing from the cores of many such galaxies for millions of light-years.

The engines driving the cosmic nozzles remain unknown, but the new radio dish network was designed to make detailed images of the regions near where they emanate.

"Locating the point at which these jets are turned on has been the Holy Grail in this field [radio astronomy]," Doeleman said.

The international project uses radio dishes in Arizona, Spain, Finland and Chile. Signals from each are time-stamped with atomic clocks and pieced together with a supercomputer. The result is an instrument with an unprecedented ability to distinguish between two closely situated objects far away in the sky.

The virtual radio observatory performed well in trial runs earlier this year, picking up radio signals from galaxies more than 3 billion light-years away.

Besides targeting more galaxies, astronomers will train the global instrument on our own Milky Way core, hoping to image celestial structures near a super massive black hole thought to lurk there.

"We weren't sure we could get it to work last spring, but clearly these current results represent just the tip of the iceberg," said Lucy Ziurys, director of the University of Arizona's radio observatory.

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