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Haystack to host meeting on fast data transfer

Dr. Alan Whitney of Haystack mounts an 18,000-foot tape on the Mark IV correlator. Magnetic tapes will be eliminated when the e-VLBI program is finished.
Dr. Alan Whitney of Haystack mounts an 18,000-foot tape on the Mark IV correlator. Magnetic tapes will be eliminated when the e-VLBI program is finished.
Photo courtesy / Haystack Observatory

The real-time, high-speed transmission of very large quantities of scientific data is the subject of an April 8-9 conference at MIT's Haystack Observatory.

The meeting will explore the current state of high-speed astronomy data transmission, concentrating on one technique unique to radio astronomy--Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) ������ and how the enormous data sets generated by this technique can be rapidly moved over international networking facilities.

VLBI, which can generate tens of terabytes a day, brings together data taken simultaneously by many antennas scattered around the globe to form a beam that appears to be from a single large antenna. This technique creates high-resolution images of distant radio objects in the universe and is used to measure with unprecedented precision the motions of the Earth's tectonic plates.

To form these images, each radio telescope generally records data at rates up to 1 gigabyte per second for 24 hours or more, resulting in very large uncompressible data sets that need to be processed at a central facility.

"Until now, we have recorded the data on magnetic tapes and shipped them to central locations to correlate and analyze the data," said Alan Whitney, associate director of Haystack Observatory, a recognized leader in the field of VLBI. "With the world increasingly wired for high-speed data communications, the prospects for routine global electronic transmission of VLBI data--dubbed e-VLBI--become brighter every day. This conference will bring radio astronomers from the national and international communities together with networking experts to look at this exciting new technique."

E-VLBI will not only help to eliminate costly and complex recording equipment, but should allow data rates and volumes unattainable by traditional recording equipment. This will lead to improved sensitivity, allowing new science to be explored at lower costs. The main focus of the development has been radio astronomy, but the developers recognize the synergy with other scientific applications, as well as business and industrial applications requiring real-time or near-real-time high-speed data transmissions.

Haystack Observatory is an interdisciplinary research center in Westford, Mass., engaged in radio astronomy, geodesy, atmospheric sciences and radar applications.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 3, 2002.

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