Radio Telescopes in the New Movie "Contact" Dish Up Real Science
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In the new movie "Contact," astronomer Ellie Arroway, played by actress Jodie Foster, searches for signs of extraterrestrial life using massive, Earth-bound radio telescopes.
Much of Contact's scientific intrigue, based on Carl Sagan's 1985 bestseller, unfolds at two National Science Foundation-supported radio astronomy facilities where real-life astronomical mysteries continue to be probed. Scientists use the government-supported telescopes to detect radio waves not from distant civilizations but from planets, stars, galaxies and other objects in space. Radio observations extend astronomers' reach into space and time, letting them "see" through gas and dust in space to detect celestial objects whose visible light cannot be seen from Earth.
In "Contact," Foster hears the first guttural, throbbing message transmitted by other-worldly life using the world's most powerful radio telescope, the Very Large Array in Socorro, New Mexico, a collection of 27 antennas spread in a three-armed configuration across the desert. The huge dishes which Foster manipulates in the film from her lap-top computer like a high-tech, movable Stonehenge are run in reality by NSF's National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Electronically linked to simulate a single radio telescope up to 20 miles in diameter, the antennas can be bunched together or moved apart along railroad tracks into different configurations. About 700 astronomers visit the VLA each year to observe the universe.
Earlier this year the VLA was used to detect the first radio emission from a gamma-ray burster shedding light on the cause and locations of these explosions, one of the great mysteries of astrophysics. In a 1994 discovery, the VLA revealed an object within the Milky Way Galaxy--a double-star system with a black hole or neutron star as one partner--ejecting jets of particles at nearly the speed of light, a process thought to mirror the dynamics at work in the centers of galaxies.
In "Contact," Foster gets her scientific start at another NSF-supported facility, the Arecibo Observatory, a huge, stationary radio dish operated by Cornell University in the lush mountain setting of Puerto Rico. The 1000-foot reflector dish, also featured in the James Bond film, "Goldeneye," is the largest stationary radio telescope and most powerful radar in the world. Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor of Princeton University earned a Nobel Prize by using the dish in the 1970s to discover the first pulsar in a binary system, confirming a prediction of Einstein's theory of general relativity.
In the early 1990s, Arecibo was used to detect the first planets outside the solar system. The dish recently received a facelift in a $27-million upgrade which makes it four times more sensitive to radio emissions from distant galaxies. The dish was used in the 1960s to chart accurately for the first time the rate at which the planet Mercury rotates. More recently it studied ice in Mercury's polar craters, the chemistry of Earth's upper atmosphere and rotating pulsars. The new upgrade will let astronomers "hear" signals from much greater distances, and further back in time, than before.
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