Radio astronomy in Europe is in the middle of a revolution, a revolution driven by technology. As we enter the 21st Century, the digital and telecommunications advances of the last decade are bearing fruit. We are anticipating the connection of our telescopes with fibre optics, of replacing much of the obsolete electronics with modern, highly capable digital equipment and of transforming our large, single-dish telescopes with focal-plane arrays that will increase their efficiency by large factors. These advances will also result in a tsunami of data, as astronomers take advantage of the new capabilities presented to them by the engineers. Within the next few years, instruments such as the EVN, e-MERLIN, and ALMA will be routinely generating 0.5 TBytes per day, every day. To handle such prodigious quantities of data, European radio astronomers are also working on new software and modern parallel computing techniques, and are increasingly involved in the development of the GRID.
The current radio astronomical facilities developed in a research discipline that, for 50 years, made its advances largely on the basis of dedicated national or bi-lateral efforts. The need for coordinated forward-thinking on a European scale arises alongside the emergence of the next-generation astronomical facilities that are, or will be, set up as multi-national projects from the earliest stages of conception. Such large projects were hitherto the preserve of elementary particle physics research.
The RadioNet Integrated Infrastructure Initiative (I3) is a logical continuation of the very successful FP5 Infrastructure Cooperation Network (ICN) of the same name (HPRI-CT-1999-40003). The ICN, in turn, grew out of the 25 years of cooperation engendered by the European VLBI Network (EVN). The EVN is a bottom-up organization formed by Europe's VLBI-capable institutes in 1980; it began as a loose organization to promote high-resolution radio astronomy. However, with the possibilities offered by the ICN and I3 instruments developed by the EC, the time is clearly ripe to expand the scope of this cooperation between the institutes into something more formal and more wide-ranging. The RadioNet I3 has therefore gathered together all of Europe's leading radio astronomy facilities and has enabled the production of a highly focused set of proposals aimed at strengthening and integrating European radio astronomy.
The general objective of RadioNet is to ensure that key developments in Radio Astronomy are supported on a European-wide basis, pooling together the broad range of skills, resources and expertise that exists within the RadioNet family, providing a critical mass that will ensure that progress is not made slowly in isolation but quickly and efficiently, via a broad-based, yet well-focused scientific and engineering collaboration. Many of the activities (in particular the Joint Research Activities) are inter-dependent. As a collective body, RadioNet can provide the coordination and overview that is essential to ensure that these are properly matched and that the end user, the astronomer, plays a major part in shaping the final overall product. The generation of this proposal and the programme of activities described therein, has catalysed the community into identifying those areas that we must invest in now, in order to maximise the performance of the existing radio telescope facilities across Europe. The telescope facilities that we have recognized as being of paramount interest to the astronomical community in terms of transnational access, are also those that will benefit most directly from the JRA projects proposed here. At the same time, sufficient Management & Networking mechanisms are in place to provide the level of coherent feedback and response that is absolutely vital in ensuring that RadioNet delivers a fully integrated and flourishing Radio Astronomy development programme.
RadioNet thus looks forward to a significantly enhanced level of European collaboration and cooperation in the future.
The principal and specific objectives of RadioNet are:
- To provide an integrated radio astronomy network which will ensure that European scientists have access to world-class facilities;
- To provide an integrated research and development programme which will support and enhance European radio astronomy facilities;
- To develop a programme of networking activities which will ensure close European collaboration in engineering, software development and science. Networking in this manner will result in major enhancements that will not otherwise have be possible and will significantly strengthen all aspects of European radio astronomy;
- To train the next generation of astronomers to use the current state-of-the-art and future radio astronomy facilities;
- To train and nurture the next generation of engineers who will build the instruments of the future;
- To promote a common and unified approach to user support across the European radio facilities;
- To prepare for the next generation of world-class radio astronomy facilities through a wide discussion of their scientific motivation, through integrated research and development initiatives, and through the planning of the future structure of European radio astronomy;
- To strengthen the entire European astronomical community via the development of close and effective links with our partner I3s, EuroPlaNet, OPTICON and ILIAS.
These objectives will serve to strengthen the European astronomical community; to enhance the scientific output of its members, both in quality and quantity; and to ensure that it is well placed to take full advantage of the new generation of facilities under construction or being planned.
The RadioNet proposal has been designed as an integrated and coherent endeavour. It will have a strong and efficient management structure. This is based on the highly effective structure developed for the EVN tested 25 years. The RadioNet Board was formed during the development of this proposal and has already acted effectively in ensuring that the proposed activities are tightly focused. This was achieved in part by eliminating two suggested Transnational Access (TNA) proposals and one Joint Research Activity (JRA).
The integrated nature of the proposed programme of activities is evident in several areas:
- Transnational Access: RadioNet contains 7 TNA proposals, aimed at enabling the European user community to have easy and transparent access to the entire range of radio facilities; and to offer them an integrated, professional and consistent level of user support. RadioNet's goal is, through the judicious use of EC funding, to simultaneously improve the data products delivered by these facilities and to extend the opportunities for access to a wide-range of EU and Associated State users. This is being achieved by ensuring that the facilities are all represented within networking activity N2: Synergy. The goals of this activity are to develop a coherent 'proposal interface' to the RadioNet facilities and a uniform level of user support, thereby enabling easier access to all of them. Networking activity N3: Science, will play an important role in providing an opportunity for astronomers to present and discuss the latest results they obtain via the TNA programme.
- Joint Research Activities: the 3 JRAs are focused primarily on developing and significantly improving the existing RadioNet facilities through enhanced performance of the equipment and capabilities of the telescopes. This will result in an increase in the quality and quantity of access, and will have an immediate and positive impact on the user community. In the longer term the experience will deepen the skill-base on which European institutes rely in competing for the construction of new astronomical instrumentation in the future, and ensure that those skills remain here in Europe. The experience obtained through the JRAs and through other, nationally-funded development efforts, will be transferred to the wider community through the networking activities. Specifically, N2: Synergy, N4: Engineering and N5: Software are designed to enable the communication of new techniques, ideas, best practice and the like to engineers and support scientists from all of the RadioNet facilities.
- Networking Activities: as mentioned above, several of the networking activities are designed to support the operations and engineering side of RadioNet. However, others are designed to promote the science performed with the facilities and to develop and train the next generation of astronomers. These are vital roles. Without a young and vibrant community a subject will wither and die. We are fortunate in Europe to have a strong, forward-looking community; this must be nurtured and developed to enable Europeans to be the leaders of the future. N3: Science and N6: ALMA are networking activities whose main goals are the discussion and dissemination of science and the training of young astronomers.