A radio telescope opens up new horizons

The European observatory NOEMA reaches full capacity with twelve antennas

The NOEMA radio telescope, located on the Plateau de Bure in the French Alps, is now equipped with twelve antennas, making it the most powerful radio telescope of its kind in the northern hemisphere. It is operated by the international institute IRAM, in which the Max Planck Society is involved. Max Planck President Martin Stratmann was among the guests at the telescope's inauguration ceremony on September 30.

Eight years after the inauguration of the first NOEMA antenna in 2014, the large-scale European project is now complete. Thanks to its twelve 15-metre antennas, which can be moved back and forth on a specially developed rail system up to a distance of 1.7 kilometres long, NOEMA is a unique instrument for astronomical research.

The telescope is equipped with highly sensitive receiving systems that operate close at the quantum limit. During observations, the observatory's twelve antennas act as a single telescope - a technique called interferometry. After all the antennas have been pointed towards one and the same region of space, the signals they receive are combined with the help of a supercomputer. Their detailed resolution then corresponds to that of a huge telescope whose diameter is equal to the distance between the outermost antennas.

The respective arrangement of the antennas can extend over distances from a few hundred metres to 1.7 kilometres. The network thus functions like a camera with a variable lens. The further apart the antennas are, the more powerful is the zoom: the maximum spatial resolution of NOEMA is so  high that it would be able to detect a mobile phone at a distance of over 500 kilometres.

NOEMA is one of the few radio observatories worldwide that can simultaneously detect and measure a large number of signatures - i.e. "fingerprints" of molecules and atoms. Thanks to these so-called multi-line observations, combined with high sensitivity, NOEMA is a unique instrument for investigating the complexity of cold matter in interstellar space as well as the building blocks of the university. With NOEMA, over 5,000 researchers from all over the world study the composition and dynamics of galaxies as well as the birth and death of stars, comets in our solar system or the environment of black holes. The observatory captures light from cosmic objects that has travelled to Earth for more than 13 billion years.

NOEMA has already delivered a number of important scientific discoveries and findings. For example, the telescope has observed the most distant known galaxy known to date, which formed shortly after the Big Bang. In addition, NOEMA recently measured the temperature of the cosmic background radiation at a very early stage of the universe, a scientific first that should make it possible to trace the effects of dark energy driving the universe apart.



IRAM was founded in 1979 by the French research organisation CNRS and the Max Planck Society, joined in 1990 by the Spanish Instituto Geográfico Nacional (IGN). NOEMA, the Northern Extended Millimetre Array, is now the most powerful millimetre radio telescope in the northern hemisphere. The observatory is part of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), which released the first image of a black hole in 2019 and the image of the black hole at the centre of our Galaxy in May 2022. Alongside IRAM's second observatory, the 30-metre radio antenna in Spain, NOEMA will enable the EHT to produce images and animations of black holes with even greater detail. Both facilities are crucial for the EHT collaboration and for researching and understanding the physics of black holes.

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