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Making radio telescopes see

Date Released: Wed, 5 September 2012 11:59 +0200

Professor Oleg Smirnov is the first SKA Chair in Radio Astronomy Techniques and Technologies, which is hosted by Rhodes University.

As a young boy, Prof Oleg Smirnov became fascinated with Africa after hearing stories about the continent from his grandfather, who was the Soviet ambassador in Kinshasa in the late 1960s. In a fitting turn of fate, the 39-year old scientist, who spent his professional career in Russia and the Netherlands, will now play a crucial role in putting Africa at the forefront of scientific discovery.

Prof Smirnov is the first Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Chair in Radio Astronomy Techniques and Technologies, which is hosted by Rhodes University. The Chair forms part of the Centre for Radio Astronomy Techniques and Technologies (RATT) within the Rhodes Department of Physics and Electronics, and will help develop algorithms and techniques for the SKA.

Prof Smirnov’s appointment is seen as a coup for Rhodes. “Quite simply he is one of the most outstanding radio interferometrists in the world and without a doubt the most exciting young talent in the area of the analysis of radio astronomy data,” says Dr Paul Alexander of the Department of Physics of the University of Cambridge.

Prof Smirnov has great ambitions for RATT and wants to turn it into a world leader in radio astronomy. His first priority will be recruiting ‘“some bright postdocs and students”. “I need to get a group together. There are currently too few people working on these things - certainly fewer than the SKA will need - so there’s quite a vacuum to be filled.

Prospects are good!” Prof Steve Rawlings of the University of Oxford, who died tragically earlier this year, wrote in his recommendation of Prof Smirnov for the SKA chair that he would attract the world’s best young astronomers, engineers and software developers to Rhodes.

Prof Smirnov has spearheaded a novel software package called MeqTrees that has been adopted by radio astronomers at the cutting edge. It is no exaggeration to say that the Smirnov’s “entirely novel thinking” has re-defined the field, Prof Rawlings wrote. “(But) unusually for someone with such a strong background in mathematics, physics and computing, Oleg is a superb communicator.”

According to those who have worked with Prof Smirnov, he is an inspirational speaker and a de facto leader who can rally astronomers, engineers and postgraduate students around projects. He has also been widely praised for making very challenging concepts accessible

Radio astronomy is a uniquely complex field, which incorporates a range of different disciplines – including physics, mathematics, computing and electronics - to allow scientists to collect and study the radio waves emitted by stars, galaxies, quasars (the brightest and most distant objects in our universe) and other astronomical objects.

Prof Smirnov explains his area of interest as “making radio telescopes see”. “Imagine yourself lying on the bottom of a swimming pool, and looking up through the water. You are the radio telescope and the water is the Earth’s atmosphere and ionosphere. Now imagine that there’s a ceiling up overhead, with faint frescoes that you’re trying to make out through the water.

The frescoes are the faint objects of the universe.” “Then, somebody goes and puts a thousand bright lights on the ceiling (the radio-bright objects of the universe) - you’re now trying to make out the frescoes behind the lights’ glare. And then the wind picks up so the water gets choppy.”

“That’s more or less what we’re trying to do right now. We used to study the bright lights – because that’s all we could hope to make out - but now we have ways to detect the faint stuff underneath.”

“My study is not in what we see per se, but how to make the telescope ‘see’ it better. In a way it’s almost like solving puzzles - even older telescopes don’t often work to their full potential because the ‘true’ signal is hidden behind the distortions, and by learning to remove the distortions better and better, we can disentangle useful science even from old observations.

This is probably what fascinates me the most.” Prof Smirnov is excited about the SKA, which will be far more sensitive than present-day radio telescopes, and so should be able to see much fainter objects than ever before. But because the telescopes will be more sensitive, more subtle distortions will also be picked up, and algorithms will have to be designed to correct for these distortions in order to unlock the SKA’s full potential.

Picture by Sophie Smith

Making radio telescopes see