By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC News Online science editor
Work has started to use optical fibres to link up the giant radio telescope at Jodrell Bank with five others that are scattered across England.
The giant Lovell Telescope is at Merlin's hub
The telescopes comprise an array called Merlin that combines the data from each so they perform as a larger telescope.
The telescopes are currently linked by microwaves but replacing them with optical fibres will be a revolution.
The new project, e-Merlin, will be a massive leap in Jodrell's ability to look out into space, astronomers say.
Seeing the light
Connecting the array of radio telescopes with optical fibres will transform what is already a world-class facility.
"Merlin is the first to be making this leap forward with optical fibres," says its director Professor Phil Diamond.
The interconnected array of radio telescopes - Merlin stands for Multi-Element Radio-Linked Interfometer Network - centred on the Cheshire observatory has been a remarkable scientific success.
Since 1980, it has provided detailed images of objects ranging from the closest stars to the most distant objects in the Universe.
It is the only instrument observing radio waves that is able to routinely provide images comparable in detail to those obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope.
Merlin's scattered telescopes.
But Jodrell Bank astronomers were aware that Merlin's full capabilities had not been reached so they devised e-Merlin.
Currently, each telescope in the Merlin array sends back its data to Jodrell Bank using microwaves which are able to carry just 0.5% of the signals collected by each telescope.
"With optical fibres, it will be possible to use 100% of the data from each telescope, and that will give us a much deeper view of the Universe," says Dr Simon Garrington, e-Merlin's project manager.
When fully operational, each telescope will be producing as much data as the entire UK public internet.
Speaking at a ceremony to mark e-Merlin's launch, Jodrell Bank's director, Professor Andrew Lyne, said that the expected increase in sensitivity of the array by a factor of 30 would open a new door on the Universe.
Via Peterborough and Birmingham
The communications company Global Crossing Europe are providing the backbone of the optical connections based on its extensive network running alongside railway lines and roads.
About 90km of new fibre will be laid to link the radio telescopes to the existing optical trunking.
The Merlin telescope at Cambridge will have an optical fibre that will follow the road network to Peterborough, Nottingham and then to Birmingham.
The two Merlin telescopes at Defford and Knockin in the south of England will also send their data to Birmingham where they will be combined with the Cambridge data to be piped up to Jodrell Bank.
A Merlin view of an active galaxy some 10 million light-years away
The system will become operational in 2007 when Jodrell Bank will find itself at the centre of an unprecedented barrage of astronomical data.
So much data, in fact, that today's computers could not cope. Jodrell's astronomers are designing the network for the faster computers that will be developed in years to come.
When it is complete, Merlin will be a transformed instrument.
"It is going to revolutionise the science we are going to be able to do," says Jodrell Bank astronomer Dr Tom Muxlow.
"With the new array we will be able to do in just one day's observations what would have taken us three years."