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Caltech’s valley site in line for more ‘ears’

June 28, 2011

The New Jersey Institute of Technology is proposing to add eight satellite dishes like these (found at the CARMA site in the White Mountains) to the Owens Valley Radio Observatory’s existing seven-satellite array. Data collected from the new dishes would be sent to New Jersey and used by scientists all over the world. Photo © Sterling Schat Photography

The famous Owens Valley “Big Ears” site is about to get even bigger.
The New Jersey Institute of Technology is planning to expand operations at the California Institute of Technology Radio Observatory north of Big Pine by adding a new set of radio telescopes.
Both the Inyo County Clerk and the landowner, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, approved a negative declaration for the project on June 13. By signing off on the negative declaration, the county and LADWP have essentially agreed no significant environmental impacts would result from expanding the solar array at the Owens Valley Radio Observatory on Leighton Lane in Big Pine.
The project proposes to expand an existing radio-telescope array by installing 13 new antenna pads and associated two-meter antennas, a new modular control building, access roads and cable trenching along the access roads.
According to the Negative Declaration of Environmental Impacts for the project, mitigation measures were made a condition of approval of the project and a mitigation reporting or monitoring plan will be implemented.
Mitigation will include the “use of an archeologist and monitor from the Big Pine Tribe as we do some ground disturbance in areas that may hold cultural significance,” said Project Manager Kjell Nelin.
Construction on the $5 million project is funded through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment act and is scheduled to begin Sept. 1. All project components must be completed within the next two-and-a-half years.
The project aims to add eight new antennas to the Owens Valley solar array to bring the total to 15, and replaces the existing control systems, wiring and signal processing with modern, far more capable and reliable systems based on newly developing technology.
“In so doing, we will create a university-led community facility that will address a broad range of new science that will serve the scientific community,” a website for the project states.
According to Caltech, the project will support that community by providing open data access and software tools for analysis of the data, to exploit synergies with ongoing solar research in other wavelength bands.
“The project will result in a world-class facility for scientific research at microwave radio frequencies in areas of important national interest, such as understanding the Sun’s influence on the Earth and near-Earth space environment – a subject broadly termed Space Weather,” the website states.
“All we’re really going to be doing here is getting the satellites up and running and download the data to New Jersey,” Nelin said. “Scientists from all over the world will be using the data. What we’re doing here is state-of-the-art, and it’s going to be world-class science.”
According to the project website, “The solar science to be addressed focuses on the magnetic structure of the solar corona, on transient phenomena resulting from magnetic interactions, including the sudden release of energy and subsequent particle acceleration and heating, and on space weather phenomena.
“The project also includes an exciting program of targeted astronomical science. The non-solar science exploits the large amount of available observing time when the array is not used for solar work, to do search, follow-up, and monitoring of transient radio astronomical sources. The project will be completed in time to provide solar-dedicated observations during the upcoming solar maximum in 2013 and beyond.”
Nelin said the Owens Valley Radio Observatory was founded here due to the remote location that allowed scientists to observe the stars without interference from radio waves common in large cities and the area still provides some of the best conditions in the world for the research scientists conduct there.

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