For the past 22 hours, 35 radio telescopes from around the world have been holding hands and working toward a common goal: creating the most powerful grid that’s ever spanned the skies (NRAO press release).
2 hours from now, the telescopes will again go their separate ways, having measured the positions of 243 quasars — distant, blazing-bright galaxies with supermassive black holes at their cores. Quasars are ideal reference points in the sky because they’re both visible and stable (due to their distance) to Earthlings. Because large groups of telescopes — whichever subset is facing the quasars of interest — are measuring the positions in unison, they are able to cover most of the sky and avoid problems of combining data from different observing sessions.
The telescope teams are measuring 1 to 3 quasars at a time for anywhere from 30 to 500 seconds each. As they crunch along, their activities and measurements are visible in real time at the Bordeaux Observatory’s website.
The 24-hour, 7-continent effort demolishes the previous world record for telescope collaborations, which included 23 scopes. If all continues to go according to plan, the result will be a new, stronger reference grid for the sky, allowing more precise measurements of everything from gravity to movements of the tectonic plates.