Limitations on Imaging Performance

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VLA capabilities September 2011 - January 2013

1. Introduction

Imaging performance can be limited in many different ways. Some of the most common are listed in the following subsections.

2. Image Fidelity

With conventional point-source calibration methods, and even under the best observing conditions, the achieved dynamic range will rarely exceed a few hundred. The limiting factor is usually the atmospheric phase stability. If the target source contains more than 50 mJy in compact structures (depending somewhat on band), self-calibration can be counted on to improve the images. If the atmospheric coherence time is several minutes or longer, weaker sources can be used for self-cal; for shorter coherence times and less sensitive bands, stronger sources will be needed. Dynamic ranges in the thousands can be achieved using these techniques. With the new WIDAR correlator, much greater bandwidths and much higher sensitivities are available, and we expect self-calibration methods will be extendable to observations of sources with much lower flux densities than the current limits.

3. Invisible Structures

An interferometric array acts as a spatial filter, so that for any given configuration, structures on a scale larger than the fringe spacing of the shortest baseline will be completely absent. Diagnostics of this effect include negative bowls around extended objects, and large-scale stripes in the image. Table 5 gives the largest scale visible to each configuration/band combination.

4. Poorly Sampled Fourier Plane

Unmeasured Fourier components are assigned values by the deconvolution algorithm. While this often works well, sometimes it fails noticeably. The symptoms depend upon the actual deconvolution algorithm used. For the CLEAN algorithm, the tell-tale sign is a fine mottling on the scale of the synthesized beam, which sometimes even organizes itself into coherent stripes. Further details are to be found in Reference 1 in Documentation.

5. Sidelobes from Confusing Sources

At the lower frequencies, large numbers of detectable background sources are located throughout the primary antenna beam, and into its first sidelobe. Sidelobes from those sources which have not been deconvolved will lower the image quality of the target source. Although bandwidth smearing and time-averaging will tend to reduce the effects of these sources, the very best images will require careful imaging of all significant background sources. The deconvolution tasks in AIPS (IMAGR) and CASA (clean) are well suited to this task.

6. Sidelobes from Strong Sources

An extension of the previous section is to very strong sources located anywhere in the sky, such as the Sun (especially when a flare is active), or when observing with a few tens of degrees of the very strong sources Cygnus A and Casseopeia A. Image degradation is especially notable at lower frequencies, shorter configurations, and when using narrow-bandwidth observations (especially in spectral line work) where chromatic aberration cannot be utilized to reduce the disturbances. In general, the only relief is to include the disturbing sources in the imaging, or to observe when these objects are not in the viewable hemisphere.