PROVO — They call it the Very Small Array: an arrangement of seven satellite antennas, each about 10 feet in diameter, functioning as a radio telescope atop the W.W. Clyde Engineering Building at Brigham Young University.
Playfully nicknamed after New Mexico's Very Large Array, the world-renowned astronomical radio observatory featured in the 1997 film "Contact," the set of antennas at BYU may serve as a key that unlocks mysteries of the universe, according to a pair of engineering professors.
For nearly six years, Brian Jeffs and Karl Warnick have been refining a method of reducing man-made interference to allow astronomers to better receive radio and microwave signals emitted by stars, constellations and other deep-space objects. The project is funded by grants from the National Science Foundation.
"With radio astronomy, you're looking for radio signals from deep space," Jeffs said. "They're very weak signals. And you're operating in an environment where man-made radio signals are very nearby and relatively strong. So it's like trying to see something in the dark with a spotlight shining in your eye. You're blinded by the near-field interference."
That's where the Very Small Array comes in.
"The gist of the project is we take the signal coming from a radio telescope and filter out the man-made interferences," Warnick said, citing television signals and global positioning satellite systems as such interferences.
By arranging the satellite antennas and modifying existing mathematical algorithms to convert the received signals into an image, Jeffs and Warnick were able to create a representation of the remnants of a supernova that is a bright radio source in the star constellation Cassiopeia.
"Most people think of astronomical observations in the form of visual light images," Jeffs said. "But because so many signals come to Earth in the form of radio and microwaves, if you want to see the edges of the universe, you really need to look in the radio spectrum, so to speak."
Jeffs and Warnick are working in collaboration with the National Radio Astronomical Observatory in West Virginia, one of the world's premier research facilities for radio astronomy. The observatory is home to the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, the largest fully steerable dish in the world.
The BYU professors see the Very Small Array as a "test platform" for the NRAO, where they plan to take their research and attempt to prove their methods on a larger scale.
"We don't have a world-class radio telescope here at BYU," Jeffs said, "but we have some smaller systems that we use to vet new techniques, new methods. . . . When they work here, the plan is to take them to Green Bank or the VLA (in New Mexico) and see if we can apply them and get them to work there."
The professors began the project after an amateur astronomy magazine published a story about an NRAO group that had built an interference filtering device.
"We thought, 'We're electrical engineers. That's the kind of thing we do,' " Warnick said. "So we started building antennas on our building out here."
The Very Small Array also creates unique educational opportunities for BYU students, Jeffs said. The array of antennas was constructed by engineering graduate students, under the supervision of the two professors, and grad students continue to work on the project.
BYU's astronomy department also has been invited to use the antennas, he said.
"This is very much an educational opportunity," Jeffs said.