Virginia Tech has received a $273,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to search for low-frequency radio pulses associated with gamma ray bursts, neutron stars and black holes. The grant will fund construction of a radio telescope at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI), located in a mountainous, radio-quiet area southwest of Asheville, N.C.

Virginia Tech researchers will build an array of 12 antennas that will continuously observe the entire sky and use a sophisticated new real-time computing system to search for faint pulses that exhibit the unique characteristics expected from distant astronomical explosions.

The instrument — named ETA, for Eight-meter-wavelength Transient Array — will be one of a new breed of radio telescopes that use very simple antennas and receivers combined with high-performance, real-time digital signal processing and a reconfigurable computing cluster that provides continuous, automated analysis.

The Virginia Tech team includes principal investigator Steven Ellingson, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering (ECE) in the College of Engineering; Cameron Patterson, associate professor of ECE, responsible for the ETA computing system; and John Simonetti, associate professor of physics in the College of Science and ETA project scientist.

PARI is contributing the use of one of its 26-meter radio telescopes, which will be modified and used for additional on-demand study of any detected phenomena. On-site PARI astronomers will assist the Virginia Tech researchers during the project.

“ETA will use adaptive array technology to observe an entire class of astronomical explosions that are nearly impossible to detect using existing instruments,” said Ellingson. “Existing ‘big dish’ telescopes have to be pointed, and have very narrow field-of-view — like looking at the universe through a soda straw. ETA can see the whole sky all the time, and that’s a huge advantage if you are looking for rare single pulses.”

Single pulses are an expected — but so-far undetected — result of a broad class of exotic astronomical events, including exploding black holes, supernovae, gamma ray bursts, and mergers of neutron star binaries. “Detection and analysis of the pulses would have profound implications for the study of these objects,” said Ellingson.

The one-year project will be reviewed by the NSF and may be continued with $174,000 in additional support for a second year.

Founded in 1872 as a land-grant college, Virginia Tech has grown to become among the largest universities in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Today, Virginia Tech’s eight colleges are dedicated to putting knowledge to work through teaching, research, and outreach activities and to fulfilling its vision to be among the top research universities in the nation. At its 2,600-acre main campus located in Blacksburg and other campus centers in Northern Virginia, Southwest Virginia, Hampton Roads, Richmond, and Roanoke, Virginia Tech enrolls more than 28,000 full- and part-time undergraduate and graduate students from all 50 states and more than 100 countries in 180 academic degree programs.

Located in the Pisgah Forest, the 200-acre campus of PARI, a non-profit public foundation affiliated with the University of North Carolina system, is a dark sky location for astronomy and was selected in 1962 by NASA as the east coast tracking station for manned space flights. PARI offers educational programs at all level and hosts radio telescopes, optical telescopes and the infrastructure necessary to support astronomy education and research.

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