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Pumped-up radio telescope seeks new moniker

Public help sought for unimaginative boffins

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The prosaically named Very Large Array radio-telescope installation is getting a substantial upgrade – and the boffins who tend it have decided that it needs a new name to go with its formidable facelift.

The Very Large Array – or VLA, for short – is a group of 27 radio antennas located in the desert about 50 miles west of Socorro, New Mexico, operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).

The VLA is VL, indeed. Each antenna is 25 meters in diameter, and weighs approximately 230 tons. The array operates as an interferometer, effectively increasing each dishes resolving power through the interactions of the antennas, which can be moved into different configurations ranging from tightly packed to as far as 13 miles from the center of the three-spoke setup.

The first antenna was installed in 1975, and the complex as a whole was dedicated in 1980. Since that time, of course, massive changes in computing and electronics have made the VLA's original equipment somewhat quaint, to put it kindly.

The Very Large Array

The Very Large Array in its very smallest configuration (source: NRAO – click to enlarge)

An upgrade was clearly needed, and a two-phase project was proposed. Phase I, the "Ultrasensitive Array" (PDF), focused on the upgrading the capabilities of the existing array's infrastucture. Substantial components of the new equipment was fired up this March, with the full panoply expected to be up and running next year.

If, by the way, you're concerned about the competition – or, for that matter, duplicative efforts and funding – of the upgraded VLA with NRAO's immense ALMA telescope now coming online in Chile's Atacama desert, there's nothing to worry about. ALMA will only cover the frequency range between 30 and 950 gigahertz, "where thermal emission processes are dominant", the NRAO explains, while the upgraded VLA will cover the frequencies between 1 and 50 gigahertz.

The Very Large Array as seen from above

The VLA's three-spoke configuration, as seen from above (source: Google Maps – click to enlarge)

A proposed Phase II, originally dubbed the "New Mexico Array", would add ten more dishes, some as far away from the core cluster as 350 kilometers, thus greatly increasing the array's resolution. Funding for Phase II is still up in the air.

But even with the $98m Phase I being the only upgrade, the capabilities of the VLA are greatly increased, with bandwith being 80 times greater, spectral resolution improved by a factor of over 1,600 times, and a vast – ahem – array of other enhancements.

Such improvements are transforming the VLA into an entirely new instrument, even though it's based on the same physical infrastructure. A new instrument needs a new name, and – boffins being boffins – the upgrade was to be named the Expanded Very Large Array.

Some bright light at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, however, apparently decided that it might be time for a entirely new name, one with a bit more pizzazz – and, not incidentally, one which might bring a bit more love and funding to the installation.

And so the public at large is now requested to submit suggestions, with the winner to be announced on January 10, 2012. "You may," the NRAO helpfully instructs, "enter a free-form name, or a word or phrase to come as a prefix before 'Very Large Array,' or both."

We can only assume that Reg readers can come up with something snappier than Expanded Very Large Array. Don't dawdle, though: "Entries will be accepted until 23:59 EST on December 1, 2011," the NRAO release notes with scientific precision. ®

Bootnote

It might also be time for the folks at the European Southern observatory to poll their fans for a new, less thud-like name for the European Extremely Large Telescope.

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