Astronomical interferometer

Astronomical interferometer

An astronomical interferometer is an array of telescopes or mirror segments acting together to probe structures with higher resolution. Astronomical interferometers are widely used for optical astronomy, infrared astronomy, submillimetre astronomy and radio astronomy. Aperture synthesis can be used to perform high-resolution imaging using astronomical interferometers. Very Long Baseline Interferometry uses a technique related to the closure phase to combine telescopes separated by thousands of kilometers to form a radio interferometer with the resolution which would be given by a single dish which was thousands of kilometers in diameter. At optical wavelengths, aperture synthesis allows the atmospheric seeing resolution limit to be overcome, allowing the angular resolution to reach the diffraction-limit of the array.

Astronomical interferometers can produce higher resolution astronomical images than any other type of telescope. At radio wavelengths image resolutions of a few micro-arcseconds have been obtained, and image resolutions of a few milliarcseconds can be achieved at visible and infrared wavelengths.

One simple layout of an astronomical interferometer is a parabolic arrangement of mirrors, giving a partially complete reflecting telescope (with a "sparse" or "dilute" aperture). In fact the parabolic arrangement of the mirrors is not important, as long as the optical path lengths from the astronomical object to the beam combiner or focus are the same as given by the parabolic case. Most existing arrays use a planar geometry instead, and Labeyrie's hypertelescope will use a spherical geometry, for example.

History of astronomical interferometers

See main article History of astronomical interferometry

One of the first uses of optical interferometry was the construction of a Michelson stellar interferometer on the Mount Wilson Observatory's reflector telescope in order to measure the diameters of stars. The red giant star Betelgeuse was the first to have its diameter determined in this way between 1920 and 1921. In the 1940s radio interferometry was used to perform the first high resolution radio astronomy observations. For the next three decades astronomical interferometry research was dominated by research at radio wavelengths, leading to the development of large instruments such as the Very Large Array and the Atacama Large Millimeter Array.

Optical/infrared interferometry was extended to measurements using separated telescopes by Johnson, Betz and Towns (1974) in the infrared and by Labeyrie (1975) in the visible. In the late 1970s improvements in computer processing allowed for the first "fringe-tracking" interferometer, which operates fast enough to follow the blurring effects of astronomical seeing, leading to the Mk I,II and III series of interferometers. Similar techniques have now been applied at other astronomical telescope arrays, including the Keck Interferometer and the Palomar Testbed Interferometer.

In the 1980s the aperture synthesis interferometric imaging technique was extended to visible light and infrared astronomy by the Cavendish Astrophysics Group, providing the first very high resolution images of nearby stars. In 1995 this technique was demonstrated on an array of separate optical telescopes for the first time, allowing a further improvement in resolution, and allowing even higher resolution [ imaging of stellar surfaces] . Software packages such as BSMEM or MIRA are used to convert the measured visibility amplitudes and closure phases into astronomical images. The same techniques have now been applied at a number of other astronomical telescope arrays, including the Navy Prototype Optical Interferometer, the Infrared Spatial Interferometer and the IOTA array. A number of other interferometers have made closure phase measurements and are expected to produce their first images soon, including the VLTI, the CHARA array and Labeyrie's Hypertelescope prototype. When completed, the MRO Interferometer with its ten moveable telescopes will produce the first high fidelity images from a long baseline interferometer.

Modern astronomical interferometry

Projects are now beginning that will use interferometers to search for extrasolar planets, either by astrometric measurements of the reciprocal motion of the star (as used by the Palomar Testbed Interferometer and the VLTI), through the use of nulling (as will be used by the Keck Interferometer and Darwin) or through direct imaging (as proposed for Labeyrie's Hypertelescope).

A detailed description of the development of astronomical optical interferometry can be found [ here] . Impressive results were obtained in the 1990s, with the Mark III measuring diameters of 100 stars and many accurate stellar positions, COAST and NPOI producing many very high resolution images, and ISI measuring stars in the mid-infrared for the first time. Additional results include direct measurements of the sizes of and distances to Cepheid variable stars, and young stellar objects.

Optical interferometers are mostly seen by astronomers as very specialized instruments, capable of a very limited range of observations. It is often said that an interferometer achieves the effect of a telescope the size of the distance between the apertures; this is only true in the limited sense of angular resolution. The combined effects of limited aperture area and atmospheric turbulence generally limit interferometers to observations of comparatively bright stars and active galactic nuclei. However, they have proven useful for making very high precision measurements of simple stellar parameters such as size and position (astrometry), for imaging the nearest giant stars and probing the cores of nearby active galaxies.

For details of individual instruments, see the list of astronomical interferometers at visible and infrared wavelengths.

At radio wavelengths, interferometers such as the Very Large Array and MERLIN have been in operation for many years. The distances between telescopes are typically 10-100 km although arrays with much longer baselines utilize the techniques of Very Long Baseline Interferometry. In the (sub)-millimetre, existing arrays include the Submillimeter Array and the IRAM Plateau de Bure facility. Currently under construction is the Atacama Large Millimeter Array.

Antoine Labeyrie has proposed the idea of an astronomical interferometer where the individual telescopes are positioned in a spherical arrangement. This geometry reduces the amount of pathlength compensation required in re-pointing the interferometer array (in fact a Mertz corrector can be used rather than delay lines), but otherwise is little different from other existing instruments. He has suggested a space-based interferometer array much larger than the Darwin and TPF projects using this spherical geometry of array elements and using a densified pupil beam combiner, and calls this his "Hypertelescope" project. As pointed out by Malcolm Fridlund, project scientist for ESA's Darwin mission, the cost of the Hypertelescope "would be really prohibitive".


*John E. Baldwin and Chris A. Haniff. The application of interferometry to optical astronomical imaging. Phil. Trans. A, 360, 969-986, 2001. ( [ download PostScript file] )
*John E. Baldwin et al, Astronomy and Astrophysics, v.306, L13, 1996 [ The first images from an optical aperture synthesis array: mapping of Capella with COAST at two epochs.] -- the first imaging with optical astronomical interferometers
*John E. Baldwin, Ground-based interferometry - the past decade and the one to come, in Interferometry for Optical Astronomy II, volume 4838 of Proc. SPIE, page 1, 22–28 August 2002, Kona, Hawaii, SPIE Press, 2003. ( [ download PostScript file] )
* M. Johnson, A. Betz, C. Townes, 1974 Physical Review Letters 33, 1617
* A. Labeyrie, 1975 Astrophys. J. 196, L71
*J. D. Monnier, Optical interferometry in astronomy, Reports on Progress in Physics, 66, 789-857, 2003 IoP. ( [ download PDF file] )
*M. Ryle & D. Vonberg, 1946 Solar radiation on 175Mc/s, Nature 158 pp 339
*Govert Schilling, New Scientist, 23 February 2006 The hypertelescope: a zoom with a view


* Basics of Interferometry, 2E by P. Hariharan - Outstanding introduction to the world of optical interferometry with summaries at the beginning and end of each chapter, several appendices with essential information, and worked numerical problems / Practical details enrich understanding for readers new to this material / New chapters on white-light microscopy for medical imaging and interference with single photons(quantum optics)

See also: History of astronomical interferometry

External links

* [ How to combine the light from multiple telescopes] for astrometric measurements
* [ Remote Sensing] the potential and limits of astronomical interferometry

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Astronomical optical interferometry — One of the first astronomical interferometers was built on the Mount Wilson Observatory s reflector telescope in 1920 in order to measure the diameters of stars. The red giant star Betelgeuse was among the first to have its diameter determined in …   Wikipedia

  • Astronomical seeing — Schematic diagram illustrating how optical wavefronts from a distant star may be perturbed by a layer of turbulent mixing in the atmosphere. The vertical scale of the wavefronts plotted is highly exaggerated. Astronomical seeing refers to the… …   Wikipedia

  • Astronomical Multi BEam Recombiner — « AMBER » redirige ici. Pour l alerte enlèvement implantée aux États Unis et au Canada, voir Alerte AMBER. En astronomie, le Astronomical Multi BEam Recombiner est un instrument interférométrique du Very Large Telescope Interferometer… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • interferometer — interferometric /in teuhr fear euh me trik/, adj. interferometrically, adv. interferometry, n. /in teuhr feuh rom i teuhr/, n. 1. Optics. a device that separates a beam of light into two ray beams, usually by means of reflection, and that brings… …   Universalium

  • interferometer — in•ter•fer•om•e•ter [[t]ˌɪn tər fəˈrɒm ɪ tər[/t]] n. 1) opt a device that splits light into two or more beams, usu. by reflection, and then brings them together to produce interference, used to measure wavelength, index of refraction, and… …   From formal English to slang

  • History of astronomical interferometry — See also: astronomical interferometerWilliam Herschel knew as early as 1779 (Herschel 1805) that stars appeared much larger in telescopes than they really were but he did not know why. When Thomas Young demonstrated interference and the wave… …   Wikipedia

  • Navy Prototype Optical Interferometer — (NPOI) Layout The Navy Prototype Optical Interferometer (NPOI[1] note recently the Protoype was dropped so that the facility is now called NOI ), is an astronomical interferometer [2] operated by the United States Naval …   Wikipedia

  • Intensity interferometer — An intensity interferometer is the name given to devices that use the Hanbury Brown and Twiss effect. In astronomy, the most common use of such an astronomical interferometer is to determine the apparent angular diameter of a radio source or star …   Wikipedia

  • Infrared Spatial Interferometer — The Infrared Spatial Interferometer (ISI) is an astronomical interferometer array of three 65 inch (1.65 m) telescopes operating in the mid infrared. The telescopes are fully mobile and their current site on Mount Wilson allows for placements as… …   Wikipedia

  • VLT Interferometer — Das Paranal Observatorium ist ein astronomisches Observatorium in der Atacamawüste im Norden Chiles, auf dem Berg Cerro Paranal. Dieser liegt etwa 120 km südlich der Stadt Antofagasta und 12 km von der Pazifikküste entfernt. Das Observatorium… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.