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Starring role for Kent engineers in creation of world’s largest ground-based telescope

The University of Kent has been involved in the one of the world’s largest astronomy projects which saw the completion of the most complex ground-based telescope last week (13 March).

As a result of two decades of work from institutions all over the world, including engineers from the University’s School of Engineering and Digital Arts (EDA), the telescope will enable scientists to probe parts of the early universe for the first time.

Now complete, the telescope – named ALMA (Atacama Large Millimetre Array) - comprises of a giant array of 66 radio antenna dishes. These dishes can effectively operate as a single antenna with a diameter of approximately 16 km, whilst also being installed at over 5,000m above sea level in the Chilean Andes.

The University of Kent team contributed by helping to develop the system for distribution of the synchronised reference signals over an optical fibre network. This involved extensive research defining which fibre cable types to use. Fibres are affected by movement and environmental variations, such as temperature, and defining the conditions for their deployment is critical in ensuring the reference signals reach the 66 antenna at the same time.

Dr Nathan Gomes, Reader in Broadband Communications in the University’s School of Engineering and Digital Arts, said: ‘In such a monumental project, we can, of course, only point to a small contribution in amongst the many technological developments that were necessary. But our contribution was vital – the synchronised reference signals, with millionths of a billionth of a second accuracy, are essential to how the array of antenna dishes can operate as a single, enormous telescope.

‘Such was the detailed knowledge held by our key researcher, Dr Pengbo Shen, he was asked to oversee commissioning of the reference distribution system at the ALMA high site in late 2009.’

Commenting on the University’s key role in ALMA, Professor Sarah Spurgeon, Head of the School of Engineering and Digital Arts, said: ‘EDA is delighted to have played its part in the world-wide collaboration of scientists and engineers required to bring this spectacular telescope into operation.’

The ALMA project is an international collaboration between Europe, East Asia and North America in co-operation with the Republic of Chile. It has been supported in the UK by the University of Kent and the Universities of Cambridge and Manchester, as well as the Technology Department and RAL Space both at STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) in Oxfordshire and STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) in Edinburgh.


Story published at 3:46pm 20 March 2013

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Last Updated: 23/05/2013