5 Discoveries Made Through Radio Telescopes

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One of the greatest things about studying a subject such as Radio Astronomy is that new discoveries are constantly being made. Astronomer Jason Cook  stopped by recently to show how much we’ve learned.

Radio telescopes are unlike the typical optical telescopes we often find at our homes. These telescopes are much bigger and they make use of radio transmitters and antenna systems to pick-up radio-frequency transmissions emitted by all sorts of astronomical objects in the vast universe.

Among these amazing astronomical instruments is the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico – the former biggest radio telescope in the world, first opened over five decades ago in 1963. The Arecibo radar stood at 305 meters and was instrumental in several advancements and discoveries in the fields of radio astronomy, atmospheric science, and radar astronomy.

What’s with the Size?

If you’re wondering why radio telescopes lean towards the larger size, think about this: radio wavelengths are immensely longer than visible light and so radio telescopes would need to be big in size so that they could match the resolution of optical telescopes.

But if you think the Arecibo is large at 305 meters, that’s nowhere near the size of the biggest radio telescope today – the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST)which was first opened in 2016 in China – is currently the largest radio telescope in the world at 500 meters; hence its name.

With the creation of the FAST radio telescope, astronomers and other scientists are hoping that it would pave the way for further advancements and discoveries.

What They Saw

Meanwhile, as we wait for new discoveries to be made, check out these 5 amazing discoveries made through radio telescopes.

  1.   The First Pulsars

Known as the lighthouses of the universe, pulsars are regarded as the dead relic of massive stars. Pulsars are neutron stars that are highly magnetized and they rotate at incredible speeds. These amazing objects could be detected using a radio telescope which would be able to pick-up the radio pulses that pulsars regularly emit.

Jocelyn Bell and Anthony Hewish were the first people to discover pulsars at Cambridge University using a radio telescope array back in 1967 where they picked-up and observed pulses continuously occurring every 1.33 seconds in the same location.

This pulsar would come to be known as the CP 1919 or the PSR 1919+21 and would earn Hewish the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics – an award which had been controversial due to Bell, having only been a doctoral student at the time, not being listed as a joint-recipient of the award.

  1.    Binary Pulsars & Millisecond Pulsars

Radio telescopes also played a great role in the discovery of binary pulsars and millisecond pulsars.

Binary pulsars are basically pulsars that orbit another considerable astronomical object; often called a binary companion. These companion stars could either be neutron stars or white dwarfs and in the case of PSR JO373-3039, another pulsar as well.

The first binary pulsar ever to be discovered is the PSR B1913+16. This binary pulsar is also often called the “Hulse-Taylor binary pulsar” in honor of the scientists who discovered it in 1974 – Joseph Hooton Taylor, Jr. and Russell Hulse who both received the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work.

Millisecond pulsars, on the other hand, are neutron stars that spin at rapid speeds, reaching hundreds of times per second; faster than even that of pulsars.

As of today, there are about 3,000 known millisecond pulsars in the universe but the first of them would be the PSR B1937+21 discovered by Donald C. Backer et al sometime in 1982. This millisecond pulsar spun at 641 times per second – the second fastest known today.

Both binary pulsars and millisecond pulsars were discovered using the Arecibo Observatory.

  1.   Quasars

Quasars are what astronomers call active galactic nuclei (AGN) – a compact area at the center of the galaxy which is also believed to be powered by extremely powerful supermassive black holes that are billions of times more powerful than our sun. These supermassive black holes will exert a tremendous gravitational pull and will draw large amounts of gas rapidly.

This would make the quasar emit immense energy and radiate streams of radio and x-rays that travel throughout the universe at light speed. Bearing in mind its ability to heat to millions of degrees, all of these are responsible for making quasars highly visible across the universe.

When radio astronomy began in the 1950s, this was also the period in which the first quasars were discovered using small telescopes and the Lovell telescope. Apart from radio telescopes, the advancement of technology and the launching of the Hubble telescope in space would help us understand more about these amazing objects.

  1.   Organic Molecules On Arp 220

According to Halton Arp’s 1966 “Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies,” Arp 220 was formed after the collision of two galaxies and is currently in the process of merging together. The Arp 220 has been the object of numerous studies by scientists since it is also the closest Ultra-luminous Infrared Galaxy (ULIG) to Earth.

With all the studies being made on Arp 220, one may have found great evidence of life on other planets.

Playing a big role in this study, the Arecibo was used to detect prebiotic molecules on Arp 220 and discovered the presence of Methanimine and hydrogen cyanide on the ULIG. Since these materials are organic in nature, it is possible that life may inhabit somewhere in the universe and that we are not alone after all.

  1.   Asteroid Imaging

In 1989, the asteroid 4769 Castalia was discovered by Eleanor Hulin through the Schmidt telescope located at the Palomar Observatory. However, while Helin was responsible for the discovery of the asteroid, it was Steven J. Ostro and R. Scott Hudson that produced the 3D model of the 4769 Castalia.

The duo had made use of radio echoes picked up the Arecibo Observatory and quickly constructed a 3D image of the asteroid – the first instance of asteroid imaging in the world.

The Bottom Line

Radio telescopes had definitely helped shape our understanding of the reality we live in. While at the moment it seems impossible for us to understand the universe in all its fullness, with instruments like radio telescopes, we are making slow and careful steps.

There is beyond a doubt that as our technology and our ingenuity continue to advance through the passage of time, we would be able to produce more useful instruments like radio telescopes to help us see the wonders of our universe.

Unfortunately, with the complexity and size of radio telescopes, it would be impossible for regular people to use and manipulate them. Thankfully, we still have our ever-reliable telescopes to turn to when we wish to get a glimpse of the beautiful cosmos.

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