Radio-Frequency Interference

by Stephan W. Witz last modified Jul 10, 2012 by Stephan Witz

The very wide bandwidths of the upgraded Very Large Array mean that RFI (radio-frequency interference) will be present in a far larger fraction of VLA observations than in observations made with the old systems.  Considerable effort has gone into making the VLA's new electronics as linear as possible, so that the effects of any RFI will remain limited to the actual frequencies at which the RFI exists.   Non-linear effects, such as receiver saturation, should occur only for those very unlikely, and usually very brief, times when the emitter is within the antenna primary beam.

RFI is primarily a problem within the low frequency bands (C, S, L, and the low-band system), and is most serious to the D configuration.  With increasing frequency and increasing resolution comes an increasing fringe rate, which is often very effective in reducing interference to tolerable levels.

The bands within the tuning range of the VLA which are allocated exclusively to radio astronomy are 1400-1427 MHz, 1660-1670 MHz, 2690-2700 MHz, 4990-5000 MHz, 10.68-10.7 GHz, 15.35-15.4 GHz, 22.21-22.5 GHz, 23.6-24.0 GHz, 31.3-31.8 GHz, and 42.5-43.5 GHz. No external interference should occur within these bands.

RFI seen in VLA data can be internal or external.  Great effort has been expended to eliminate all internally-generated RFI.  Nevertheless, some internal RFI remains, which we are working hard to eliminate.   Nearly all such internally-generated signals are at multiples of 128 MHz.  So far as we know, all such internal signals are unresolved in frequency, and hence will affect only a single channel.

Radio frequency interference of external origin will be an increasing problem to astronomical observations. Table 10 lists some of the sources of external RFI at the VLA site that might be observed within the VLA's expanded tuning range within L and S bands. Figure 3 shows a raw power cross-power spectrum at L-band. Figure 4 shows a similar plot for the lower half of S-band.

 

 

VLA staff periodically observes the entire radio spectrum, with the VLA,  from 1.0 through 50.0 GHz with 125 kHz channel resolution to monitor the ever-changing RFI spectrum.  Plots from this program, accompanied with tables of identified sources are available online, at http://science.nrao.edu/facilities/evla/observing/RFI/index. Users concerned about the precise frequencies of strong RFI, and the likelihood of being affected, are encouraged to peruse these plots.

Although most of the stronger sources of RFI are always present, it is very difficult to reliably predict their effect on observations.  Besides the already noted dependence on frequency and array configuration, there is another significant dependency on sky location for those satellites in geostationary orbit.  For these transmitters, (for example, the frequency range from 3.8 to 4.2 GHz), the effect on observing varies dramatically on the declination of the target source.  Sources near zero declination will be very strongly affected, while observations north of the zenith may well be nearly unaffected, especially at the highest resolutions.

Also available are total-power plots of all RFI observations made by the interference protection group, from 1993 onwards at http://www.vla.nrao.edu/cgi-bin/rfi.cgi. For general information about the RFI environment, contact the head of the IPG (Interference Protection Group) by sending e-mail to nrao-rfi@nrao.edu.

The VLA electronics (including the WIDAR correlator) have been designed to minimize gain compression due to very strong RFI signals, so that in general it is possible to observe in spectral windows containing RFI, provided the spectra are well sampled to constrain Gibbs ringing, and spectral smoothing (such as Hanning) is applied.  Both AIPS and CASA provide useful tasks which automatically detect and flag spectral channels/times which contain strong RFI.

Extracting astronomy data from frequency channels in which the RFI is present is much more difficult. Testing of algorithms which can distinguish and subtract RFI signals from interferometer data is ongoing.

The new 3-bit samplers will be more susceptible to RFI signals than the 8-bit samplers, since the latter have more 'levels' within which these strong signals can be accommodated.  However, since the RFI power at the bands where the 3-bit samplers will most commonly be used (X, Ku, K, Ka, and Q) is nearly always less than the total noise power, we do not expect problems when wide-band 3-bit observing is done in these bands.  At C-band however, there are strong TV and microwave communications signals which may saturate the 3-bit samplers.  Until VLA staff can better measure this effect, we recommend use of the 8-bit samplers at C-band.

Calibration of VLA data when strong RFI is present within a subband can be difficult.  Careful editing of the data, using newly available programs within CASA and AIPS, will be necessary before sensible calibration can be done.  The use of spectral smoothing (typically, Hanning), prior to editing and calibration, is strongly recommended when RFI is present within a subband.

Identification and removal of RFI is always more effective when the spectral and temporal resolutions are high.  However, the cost of higher spectral and temporal resolution is in database size and, especially, in computing time.  A good strategy is to observe with high resolution, then average down in time and frequency once the editing is completed.