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Wide-field, high sensitivity VLBI. surveying and astrometry with mas resolution. Adam Deller. VLBA Astrometry Symposium July 2009. High resolution interferometry. Traditionally, narrow fields for studying single compact objects (pulsars, AGN, masers) Astrometry is the current “killer app”

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wide field high sensitivity vlbi

Wide-field, high sensitivity VLBI

surveying and astrometry with mas resolution

  • Adam Deller
  • VLBA Astrometry Symposium
  • July 2009
high resolution interferometry
High resolution interferometry

Traditionally, narrow fields for studying single compact objects (pulsars, AGN, masers)

Astrometry is the current “killer app”

The VLBA is the currently the premier instrument for

precision VLBI astrometry

20 mas

A typical VLBI image

vlba developments
VLBA developments

Factor of 4 increase in continuum sensitivity through the bandwidth upgrade to 4 Gbps

Allows fainter astrometry targets

Additional benefit for the use of fainter, more nearby “in-beam” calibrators (and hence better astrometry)

Pradel et al. 2006


vlba astrometric capabilities
VLBA astrometric capabilities

4 minute baseline sensitivity @ 4Gbps is 0.7 mJy, summing all bandwidth

Thus calibrators as faint as 5 mJy can be used as in-beam calibrators - and brighter calibrators can solve for even shorter term atmospheric/ionospheric variability


finding in beam calibrators
Finding in-beam calibrators

No comprehensive catalogue of the radio sky at high resolution exists (reasons later)

The nearest equivalent is the geodetic source list maintained at astrogeo.org, with ~4000 sources (bright enough for use as primary calibrators, but density <1/sq. deg.)

Thus every astrometry project must typically find in-beam calibrators with a

dedicated survey


finding in beam calibrators1
Finding in-beam calibrators

This typically involved selecting candidates from low resolution VLA surveys, testing compactness with higher resolution/frequency VLA observations, and finally VLBA follow-up… Tedious & slow!

Question: The VLA and VLBA primary beams are

the same size; so why are VLBA observations sotime-consuming that a VLA pre-filter is required?


why no vlbi surveying
Why no “VLBI surveying”?

Resolution is a curse: imaging the full VLBA primary beam (~0.25 sq. deg. @ 1.6 GHz) with 2x2 mas pixels (synthesized beam ~10 mas) requires a ~600 Gpixel image: 2.4 TB, which is almost entirely noise!!

Plus the correlated data for8 hours @ 4 Gbps totals~60 TB - infeasible


600 Gpixel !

primary beam


directed surveys
“Directed” surveys

Forming small images around multiple fields of interest is possible, however

Requires a “uv shift” to be performed, correcting the antenna-based delay difference for each desired phase centre

Can be done post-correlation, but the intermediate data volume is tremendous - 60 TB/8 hour VLBA track, as with imaging the full field (time/freq. resolution)


directed surveys1
“Directed” surveys

Such post-correlation shifting has been used to test wide-field VLBI imaging (e.g. Lenc et al., Middelberg et al.)

However, the most efficient implementation (minimizing I/O) is within the correlator, before data must be written to disk

Such a capability is in the final stages of being tested in DiFX, the software correlator integral to the upgraded VLBA

Lenc et. al.


multiple phase centre cost 1
Multiple phase centre cost (1)

Phase shift adds a negligible overhead to station-based cost of correlation

However, the baseline-based XMAC must be duplicated for each phase centre

Station-based processing for VLBA (10 stations) outweighs baseline-based by ~3:1

Therefore theoretical overhead of N fields is a (N-1)/3 slowdown to correlation speed


multiple phase centre cost 2
Multiple phase centre cost (2)

Alternative implementations exist where the rotation is done more analogously to post-correlator rotation, after subintegration

Zero station-based cost, greater baseline-based cost, but less frequently

Sacrifice time resolution (but still to an acceptable level) and computation reduced (factor of several lower overhead per field?)


wide area vlbi res radio survey
Wide Area VLBI Res. Radio Survey

The VLA FIRST survey* covered ~9,000 sq. deg. to an rms of ~150 Jy @ 5” resolution, detecting ~800,000 sources (20/pointing)

At 4 Gbps, VLBA sensitivity is comparable to the original VLA, and hence duplicating FIRST at VLBI resolution would take around the original VLA time (3000 hours)

Hugely useful for understanding nature of a source in general studies


* http://sundog.stsci.edu/

outcomes of wavrss
Outcomes of WAVRSS

800,000 uv datasets and images: 12 TB correlated data, 6.5 TB image data

Expect many non-detections; 30% hit rate (Porcas et al. 2004) still yields 240,000 VLBI images (optimistic? CDFS ~20-25%)

Provides an excellent grid of reference sources for astrometry (expect 1.5 detected sources > 5 mJy per pointing, total 60,000 calibrators)


wavrss astrometric accuracy
WAVRSS astrometric accuracy

The density of known calibrators is low: ~1 per 4 sq. deg. - only 1 per ~20 pointings!

~1min/pointing -> lengthy interpolation

How to calibrate phase with such infrequent “solid” calibrator scans?

Must bootstrap newly detected calibrators

Absolute accuracy of final positions depends on existing calibrators - I expect 1 -- 10 mas


other applications
Other applications

Multiple VLBI fields/pointing has plenty of applications beyond selecting in-beam calibrators (either WAVRRS or targeted):

Globular cluster observations, with many astrometric targets in a single pointing

Star formation region studies (searching for compact radio emitters for astrometric analysis)

Discriminating AGN from starbursts in deep radio surveys (not really astrometry related)


implementation status
Implementation status

Now: verification using the CDFS dataset (Middelberg et al.) already mentioned

Hot off the press: small shifts verified, bug affecting SNR with large shifts (probably precision related)



The combination of higher sensitivity and new correlator flexibility will allow much more efficient inbeam calibrators searches than previously possible

A wide survey to provide a database of ~50,000 VLBI calibrators is feasible

These capabilities will be available from ~ early 2010