Imagine taking the world's most powerful radio telescope, used by scientists around the globe, and piping a nearly continuous data stream into your research laboratory. That is exactly what scientists at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C. have done in collaboration with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (NRAO VLA). The newly-completed VLA Low Band Ionospheric and Transient Experiment (VLITE for short) has been built to piggyback on the $300 million dollar infrastructure of the VLA.
The primary scientific driver for VLITE is real-time monitoring of ionospheric weather conditions over the U.S. southwest. NRL ionospheric lead scientist Dr. Joseph Helmboldt says "This new system allows for continuous specification of ionospheric disturbances with remarkable precision. VLITE can detect and characterize density fluctuations as small as 30 parts per million within the total electron content along the line of sight to a cosmic source. This is akin to being at the bottom of Lake Superior and watching waves as small as 1-cm in height pass overhead. This will have a substantial impact on our understanding of ionospheric dynamics, especially the coupling between fine-scale irregularities within the lower ionosphere and larger disturbances higher up."