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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 April 2006, 09:20 GMT 10:20 UK
Merlin sees vast alcohol stream
By Jonathan Amos
BBC News science reporter, in Leicester

Lovell Telescope, Jodrell Bank
The giant Lovell Telescope is at Merlin's hub
Astronomers using the Merlin network of UK radio telescopes have spied a stream of alcohol gas that stretches for 463 million km (288 million miles).

It was seen in the constellation of Cassiopeia, in a region where hot, young stars are forming.

The methanol was relatively easy to spot because of the way its molecules were being excited by infrared light.

But the new star that was the source of the radiation was not directly visible, being obscured by a huge cloud of dust.

This is an occupational hazard for scientists studying "stellar nurseries"; the objects they most want to look at are hidden away in the early stages of the birthing process.

The observations of an area on the sky known as W3(OH) mark an important progression for the Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network (Merlin).

The array of seven radio telescopes, with the famous 76m (250ft) Lovell Dish at Jodrell Bank as its lead, is in the midst of an 8m upgrade designed to improve its sensitivity and data transfer capabilities.

"The e-Merlin upgrade is happening right now," said Dr Lisa Harvey-Smith, who was the principal investigator on the W3(OH) study.

"The telescopes are getting fibre-optic links and they've got new receivers; and this discovery was the first observation made with the new receivers. It proves that it all works and it's great to see," she told the BBC News website.

Radio telescopes are important astronomical tools because they are better able to penetrate the clouds of dust and gas that hamper observations at other frequencies.

W3(OH)'s alcohol stream, although excited by infrared starlight, can be seen clearly by Merlin because the methanol molecules emit light at microwave wavelengths when they lose energy.

Dr Harvey-Smith spoke about her work and that of Merlin here are the Royal Astronomical Society's Nation Astronomy Meeting, hosted this year by Leicester University.




BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Dr Lisa Harvey-Smith explains the discovery



SEE ALSO:
Giant UK telescope gets upgrade
26 May 04 |  Science/Nature
Lovell Radio Telescope refurbished
28 Apr 03 |  Science/Nature


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