Radio astronomy is a subfield of astronomy that studies celestial objects at radio frequencies. The initial detection of radio waves from an astronomical object was made in the 1930s, when Karl Jansky observed radiation coming from the Milky Way. Subsequent observations have identified a number of different sources of radio emission. These include stars and galaxies, as well as entirely new classes of objects, such as radio galaxies, quasars, pulsars, and masers. The discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation, which provided compelling evidence[according to whom?] for the Big Bang, was made through radio astronomy.

Radio astronomy is conducted using large radio antennas referred to as radio telescopes, that are either used singularly, or with multiple linked telescopes utilizing the techniques of radio interferometry and aperture synthesis. The use of interferometry allows radio astronomy to achieve high angular resolution, as the resolving power of an interferometer is set by the distance between its components, rather than the size of its components.


Before Jansky observed the Milky Way in the 1930s, physicists speculated that radio waves could be observed from astronomical sources. In the 1860s, James Clerk Maxwell's equations had shown that electromagnetic radiation is associated with electricity and magnetism, and could exist at any wavelength. Several attempts were made to detect radio emission from the Sun by experimenters such as Nikola Tesla and Oliver Lodge, but those attempts were unable to detect any emission due to technical limitations of their instruments.[1]

Karl Jansky made the discovery of the first astronomical radio source serendipitously in the early 1930s. As an engineer with Bell Telephone Laboratories, he was investigating static that interfered with short wave transatlantic voice transmissions. Using a large directional antenna, Jansky noticed that his analog pen-and-paper recording system kept recording a repeating signal of unknown origin. Since the signal peaked about every 24 hours, Jansky originally suspected the source of the interference was the Sun crossing the view of his directional antenna. Continued analysis showed that the source was not following the 24 hour daily cycle of the Sun exactly, but instead repeating on a cycle of 23 hours and 56 minutes. Jansky discussed the puzzling phenomena with his friend, astrophysicist and teacher Albert Melvin Skellett, who pointed out that the time between the signal peaks was the exact length of a sidereal day, the timing you would get if the source was an astronomical one, "fixed" in relationship to the stars and passing in front of the antenna once every Earth rotation.[2] By comparing his observations with optical astronomical maps, Jansky eventually concluded that the radiation source peaked when his antenna was aimed at the densest part of the Milky Way in the constellation of Sagittarius.[3] He concluded that since the Sun (and therefore other stars) were not large emitters of radio noise, the strange radio interference may be generated by interstellar gas and dust in the galaxy.[2] (Jansky's peak radio source, one of the brightest in the sky, was designated Sagittarius A in the 1950s and, instead of being galactic "gas and dust", has since be found to be emitted by electrons in a strong magnetic field from the complex of objects found in that area).[4][5]

Jansky announced his discovery in 1933. He wanted to investigate the radio waves from the Milky Way in further detail, but Bell Labs re-assigned him to another project, so he did no further work in the field of astronomy. However, his pioneering efforts in the field of radio astronomy have been recognized by the naming of the fundamental unit of flux density, the jansky (Jy), after him.

Grote Reber was inspired by Jansky's work, and built a parabolic radio telescope 9m in diameter in his own backyard in 1937. He began by repeating Jansky's observations, and went on to conduct the first sky survey in the radio frequencies.[6] On February 27, 1942, J.S. Hey, a British Army research officer, made the first detection of radio waves emitted by the Sun.[7]

In Cambridge University, where ionospheric research had taken place during World War II, J.A. Ratcliffe along with other members of the Telecommunications Research Establishment that had carried out wartime research into radar, created a radio-physics group at the university where radio wave emissions from the Sun were observed and studied. This early research soon branched out into the observation of other celestial radio sources and interferometry techniques were pioneered to isolate the angular source of the detected emissions. Martin Ryle and Anthony Hewish at the Cavendish Astrophysics Group developed the technique of Earth-rotation aperture synthesis. The radio astronomy group in Cambridge went on to found the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory near Cambridge in the 1950s. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, as computers (such as the Titan) became capable of handling the computationally intensive Fourier transform inversions required, they used aperture synthesis to create a 'One-Mile' and later a '5 km' effective aperture using the One-Mile and Ryle telescopes, respectively. They used the Cambridge Interferometer to map the radio sky, producing the famous 2C and 3C surveys of radio sources.[8]


Radio astronomers use different techniques to observe objects in the radio spectrum. Instruments may simply be pointed at an energetic radio source to analyze its emission. To “image” a region of the sky in more detail, multiple overlapping scans can be recorded and pieced together in a mosaic image. The type of instrument used depends on the strength of the signal and the amount of detail needed.

Observations from the Earth's surface are limited to wavelengths that can pass through the atmosphere. At low frequencies, or long wavelengths, transmission is limited by the ionosphere, which reflects waves with frequencies less than its characteristic plasma frequency. Water vapor interferes with radio astronomy at higher frequencies, which has led to building radio observatories that conduct observations at millimeter wavelengths at very high and dry sites, in order to minimize the water vapor content in the line of sight. Finally, transmitting devices on earth may cause radio-frequency interference. Because of this, many radio observatories are built at remote places.

Radio telescopes

Main article: Radio telescope

Radio telescopes may need to be extremely large in order to receive signals with high signal-to-noise ratio. Also since angular resolution is a function of the diameter of the "objective" in proportion to the wavelength of the electromagnetic radiation being observed, radio telescopes have to be much larger in comparison to their optical counterparts. For example a 1 meter diameter optical telescope is two million times bigger than the wavelength of light observed giving it a resolution of roughly 0.3 arc seconds, whereas a radio telescope "dish" many times that size may, depending on the wavelength observed, only be able to resolve an object the size of the full moon (30 minutes of arc).

Radio interferometry

The difficulty in achieving high resolutions with single radio telescopes led to radio interferometry, developed by British radio astronomer Martin Ryle and Australian engineer, radiophysicist, and radio astronomer Joseph Lade Pawsey and Ruby Payne-Scott in 1946. Surprisingly the first use of a radio interferometer for an astronomical observation was carried out by Payne-Scott, Pawsey and Lindsay McCready on 26 January 1946 using a SINGLE converted radar antenna (broadside array) at 200 MHz near Sydney, Australia. This group used the principle of a sea-cliff interferometer in which the antenna (formerly a World War II radar) observed the sun at sunrise with interference arising from the direct radiation from the sun and the reflected radiation from the sea. With this baseline of almost 200 meters, the authors determined that the solar radiation during the burst phase was much smaller than the solar disk and arose from a region associated with a large sunspot group. The Australia group laid out the principles of aperture synthesis in their ground-breaking paper submitted in mid-1946 and published in 1947. The use of a sea-cliff interferometer had been demonstrated by numerous groups in Australia, Iran and the UK during World War II, who had observed interference fringes (the direct radar return radiation and the reflected signal from the sea) from incoming aircraft.

The Cambridge group of Ryle and Vonberg observed the sun at 175 MHz for the first time in mid July 1946 with a Michelson interferometer consisting of two radio antennas with spacings of some tens of meters up to 240 meters. They showed that the radio radiation was smaller than 10 arc minutes in size and also detected circular polarization in the Type I bursts. Two other groups had also detected circular polarization at about the same time (David Martyn in Australia and Edward Appleton with J. Stanley Hey in the UK).

Modern Radio interferometers consist of widely separated radio telescopes observing the same object that are connected together using coaxial cable, waveguide, optical fiber, or other type of transmission line. This not only increases the total signal collected, it can also be used in a process called Aperture synthesis to vastly increase resolution. This technique works by superposing ("interfering") the signal waves from the different telescopes on the principle that waves that coincide with the same phase will add to each other while two waves that have opposite phases will cancel each other out. This creates a combined telescope that is the size of the antennas furthest apart in the array. In order to produce a high quality image, a large number of different separations between different telescopes are required (the projected separation between any two telescopes as seen from the radio source is called a "baseline") - as many different baselines as possible are required in order to get a good quality image. For example the Very Large Array has 27 telescopes giving 351 independent baselines at once.

Very Long Baseline Interferometry

Beginning in the 1970s, improvements in the stability of radio telescope receivers permitted telescopes from all over the world (and even in Earth orbit) to be combined to perform Very Long Baseline Interferometry. Instead of physically connecting the antennas, data received at each antenna is paired with timing information, usually from a local atomic clock, and then stored for later analysis on magnetic tape or hard disk. At that later time, the data is correlated with data from other antennas similarly recorded, to produce the resulting image. Using this method it is possible to synthesise an antenna that is effectively the size of the Earth. The large distances between the telescopes enable very high angular resolutions to be achieved, much greater in fact than in any other field of astronomy. At the highest frequencies, synthesised beams less than 1 milliarcsecond are possible.

The pre-eminent VLBI arrays operating today are the Very Long Baseline Array (with telescopes located across North America) and the European VLBI Network (telescopes in Europe, China, South Africa and Puerto Rico). Each array usually operates separately, but occasional projects are observed together producing increased sensitivity. This is referred to as Global VLBI. There is also a VLBI network, the Long Baseline Array, operating in Australia.

Since its inception, recording data onto hard media has been the only way to bring the data recorded at each telescope together for later correlation. However, the availability today of worldwide, high-bandwidth optical fibre networks makes it possible to do VLBI in real time. This technique (referred to as e-VLBI) was pioneered by the EVN (European VLBI Network) who now perform an increasing number of scientific e-VLBI projects per year.[10]

Astronomical sources

Radio astronomy has led to substantial increases in astronomical knowledge, particularly with the discovery of several classes of new objects, including pulsars, quasars and radio galaxies. This is because radio astronomy allows us to see things that are not detectable in optical astronomy. Such objects represent some of the most extreme and energetic physical processes in the universe.

The cosmic microwave background radiation was also first detected using radio telescopes. However, radio telescopes have also been used to investigate objects much closer to home, including observations of the Sun and solar activity, and radar mapping of the planets.

Other sources include:

See also


Further reading


  • Gart Westerhout, The early history of radio astronomy. Ann. New York Acad. Sci. 189 Education in and History of Modern Astronomy (August 1972) 211-218 doi 10.1111/j.1749-6632.1972.tb12724.x
  • Hendrik Christoffel van de Hulst, The Origin of Radio Waves From Space.
  • History of High-Resolution Radio Astronomy. Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, September 2001


  • Woodruff T. Sullivan, III, The early years of radio astronomy. 1984. A collection of articles by pioneers of radio astronomy as well as historians.
  • Woodruff T. Sullivan, III, Cosmic Noise: A History of Early Radio Astronomy (Cambridge University Press; 2009). A detailed worldwide history of the field from before World War II through 1953.
  • Woodruff T. Sullivan, III, Classics in Radio Astronomy. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, 1982. Reprints of 37 key papers through 1954, with extensive commentary.
  • Kristen Rohlfs, Thomas L Wilson, Tools of Radio Astronomy. Springer 2003. 461 pages. ISBN 3-540-40387-6
  • Raymond Haynes, Roslynn Haynes, and Richard McGee, Explorers of the Southern Sky: A History of Australian Astronomy. Cambridge University Press 1996. 541 pages. ISBN 0-521-36575-9
  • Shigeru Nakayama, A Social History of Science and Technology in Contemporary Japan: Transformation Period 1970-1979. Trans Pacific Press 2006. 580 pages. ISBN 1-876843-46-2
  • David L. Jauncey, Radio Astronomy and Cosmology. Springer 1977. 420 pages. ISBN 90-277-0839-8
  • Allan A. Needell, Science, Cold War and American State: Lloyd V. Berkner and the Balance of Professional Ideals. Routledge 2000. ISBN 90-5702-621-X (ed., see Chapter 10, Expanding Federal Support of Private Research: The Case of Radio Astronomy (Pages 259 - 596))
  • Bruno Bertotti, Modern Cosmology in Retrospect. Cambridge University Press 1990. 446 pages. ISBN 0-521-37213-5 (ed., see essays by Robert Wilson, Discovery of the cosmic microwave background and Woodruff T. Sullivan, III, The entry of radio astronomy into cosmology: radio stars and 309 Martin Ryle's 2C survey.))
  • J. S. Hey, The Evolution of Radio Astronomy. Neale Watson Academic, 1973. (Also, Watson Pub Intl, 1975 ISBN 0-88202-030-7)
  • D. T. Wilkinson and P. J. E. Peebles, Serendipitous Discoveries in Radio Astronomy. National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Green Bank, WV, 1983.
  • Joseph Lade Pawsey and Ronald Newbold Bracewell, Radio Astronomy. Clarendon Press, 1955. 361 pages.
  • J. C. Kapteyn, P. C. v. d. Kruit, & K. v. Berkel, The legacy of J.C. Kapteyn: studies on Kapteyn and the development of modern astronomy. Astrophysics and space science library, v. 246. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers 2000.
  • Roger Clifton Jennison, Introduction to Radio Astronomy. 1967. 160 pages.
  • Robin Michael Green, Spherical Astronomy. Cambridge University Press 1985. 546 pages. ISBN 0-521-31779-7
  • Albrecht Krüger, Introduction to Solar Radio Astronomy and Radio Physics. Springer 1979. 356 pages. ISBN 90-277-0957-2

External links

  • National Radio Astronomy Observatory
  • Reber Radio Telescope - National Park Services
  • Goddard Space Flight Center
  • Society of Amateur Radio Astronomers
  • Visualization of Radio Telescope Data Using Google Earth
  • A general reference for radio spectrum allocations, including radio astronomy.
  • Improving Radio Astronomy Images by Array Processing
  • What is Radio Astronomy - Radioastrolab