Calibration and Flux Density Scale

by Stephan W. Witz last modified Apr 04, 2012

The VLA Calibrator List contains information on 1860 sources sufficiently unresolved and bright to permit their use as calibrators. The list is available within the Observation Preparation Tool and may be accessed on the Web at

Accurate flux densities can be obtained by observing one of 3C286, 3C147, 3C48 or 3C138 during the observing run. Not all of these are suitable for every observing band and configuration - consult the VLA Calibrator Manual for advice. Over the last several years, we have implemented accurate source models directly in AIPS and CASA for much improved calibration of the amplitude scales. Models are available for 3C48, 3C138, 3C147, and 3C286 for L, C, X, Ku, K, and Q bands. At Ka band either of the K or Q band models works reasonably well.

Since the standard source flux densities are slowly variable, we monitor their flux densities when the array is in its D configuration. As the EVLA cannot measure absolute flux densities, the values obtained must be referenced to assumed or calculated standards, as described in the next paragraph. Table 11 shows the flux densities of these sources in January 2010 at the standard VLA bands. The accuracy of these values, relative to the assumed standards, is set by the gain stability of the instrument. The estimated 1-ÏÉ errors in the table, relative to the assumed standards, are less than 1% for frequencies up to 25 GHz, and about 2% for the 43 GHz band. The flux densities for frequencies below 4 GHz are based on the Baars et al. scale. For frequencies above 4 GHz, the flux densities are based on a model of the emission of Mars, tied to the WMAP (Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe) flux scale.

Polynomial coefficients describing the derived flux densities for the standard calibrators have been determined which permit accurate interpolation of the flux density at any EVLA frequency. These coefficients are updated approximately every few years, and are used in the AIPS task SETJY and in the CASA task setjy. A substantial effort is under way to establish the long-term (past and present) accuracy of the EVLA flux density scale; contact Rick Perley or Bryan Butler for further information. From this work it is clear that the flux density of 3C286 has not changed by more than 1% over the last 25-30 years at any band - i.e., the flux density of 3C286 appears to be stable.

For most observing projects, the effects of atmospheric extinction will automatically be accounted for by regular calibration when using a nearby point source whose flux density has been determined by an observation of a flux density standard taken at a similar elevation. However, at high frequencies (i.e., K-band, Ka-band, and Q-band), both the variation of antenna gain and the atmospheric absorption with elevation may be strong enough to make "simple" flux density bootstrapping unreliable. The AIPS task ELINT is available to permit measurement of an elevation gain curve using your own observations, and subsequent adjustment of the derived gains to remove these elevation-dependent effects. The current calibration methodology does not require knowledge of the atmospheric extinction (since the true flux densities of the standard calibrators are believed known). However, if knowledge of the actual extinction is desired, tipping scans can be included in an observation.