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Mark A. Philbrick, BYU
Mike Elmer, David Carter and Karl Warnick at the Puerto Rico Arecibo Radio Observatory, the largest radio telescope on Earth, installing a multi phase antenna.

PROVO — A team of BYU researchers is offering broader glimpses into deep space through a new radio antenna system, recently installed at the world's largest radio telescope in Puerto Rico.

While optical telescopes gather light, radio telescopes gather microwave radio signals and frequencies from deep space — like the 1.4 gigahertz signals sent by invisible hydrogen. As those signals come to Earth, they are focused into a single point by a giant satellite dish and directed up into the awaiting antenna. But this time, instead of one single, high-powered antenna, BYU has created 19 smaller antennas that produce a wider picture of space without losing any resolution.

"Up until recently, nobody has put an array of smaller antennas closely packed like that on a radio telescope," said Brian Jeffs, BYU professor of electrical and computer engineering. "We're one of four groups, internationally, that is doing research and development to try and get this new technology … into practice."

BYU's antenna system is being tested at the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico, which is owned and operated by the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center at Cornell University, with funding from the National Science Foundation.

The Arecibo dish is more than three football fields wide, and the antenna is suspended 500 feet upwards within a three-story dome.

It's such a massive telescope that only the antenna dome moves along a track, not the dish itself. (It's also the same dish James Bond slid down amid gunfire during the movie "GoldenEye.")

Using a traditional antenna, most radio telescopes can capture about 1 pixel at a time, but BYU's antenna system allows deep-space observation of 40 pixels at a time, without any loss of clarity.

"If you can reduce the time to observe by a factor of 40, it's as if you had built 40 new telescopes," Jeffs said. "(These antennas) are a lot cheaper than building 40 Arecibo telescopes."

BYU electrical engineering graduate student Dave Carter was one of the main designers of the antenna system and said the difficult part was finding an antenna design that was both mechanically robust and electrically productive.

"Projects like this have helped me see the applications for all the math and science theory we study," he said.

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Thus far, the antenna system has done well, he said, and the group will return in a few weeks to make additional adjustments before removing it and taking it to the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, BYU's main partner for radio telescope work.

"Our goal as university researchers is to do world-class, mentored research," said electrical and computer engineering professor Karl Warnick, who with Jeffs is co-director of BYU's Radio Astronomy Systems Research Group. "For a student to pack his bags and go down to a tropical island and install instruments on a world-class (telescope) is pretty motivating. Learning becomes a whole different thing."