Calibration and Flux Density Scale

by Stephan W. Witz last modified Apr 29, 2013 by Stephan Witz

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.  For S-band, use the L or C band models.

Since the standard source flux densities are slowly variable, we monitor their flux densities when the array is in its D configuration. As the VLA cannot accurately 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 2012 at the standard VLA bands.  The flux density scale for the VLA, from 1 through 50 GHz, is based on emission models of the planet Mars, which is then calibrated to the CMB dipole using WMAP (Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe) observations (see Perley and Butler, 2013, for details).  The source 3C286 (=J1331+3030) is known to be non-variable, and has thus been adopted as the prime flux density calibrator source for the VLA. The adopted polynomial expression for the spectral flux density for 3C286 is:

log(S) = 1.2515 - 0.4605 log(f) - 0.1715 log2(f) + 0.0336 log3(f)

where S is the flux density in Jy, and f is the frequency in GHz.

The absolute accuracy of our flux density scale is estimated to be about 2%.   With care, the internal accuracy in flux density bootstrapping is better than 1% at all bands except Q-band, where pointing errors limit bootstrap accuracy to perhaps 3%.   Note that such high internal accuracies are only possible in long-duration observations where the antenna gains curves and atmospheric opacity can be directly measured, and where there is good elevation overlap between the target source(s) and the flux density standard calibrator.

The sources 3C48, 3C147, and 3C138 are all slowly variable.  VLA staff monitor these variations on timescale of a year or two, and suitable polynomial coefficients are determined for them which should allow accurate flux density bootstrapping. These coefficients are updated approximately every other year, and are used in the AIPS task SETJY and in the CASA task setjy.

The VLA antennas have elevation-dependent gain variations which are important to account for at the four highest-frequency bands.  Gain curves are determined by VLA staff approximately every other year, and the necessary corrections are applied to the visibility data when these data are downloaded from the archive.  In addition to this, atmospheric opacity will also cause an elevation-dependent gain which is particularly notable at these four highest frequency bands.   At the current time, we do not have an atmospheric opacity monitoring procedure, so users should utilize the appropriate tasks available in both AIPS and CASA to estimate and correct for the opacity using ground-based weather data.  Correction of these gain dependencies, plus regular calibration using a nearby phase calibrator, should enable good amplitude gain calibration for most users.  Note that extraordinary attenuation by clouds can only be (approximately) corrected for by regular observation of a nearby calibrator.

A better procedure for removing elevation gain dependencies uses the AIPS task ELINT.  This task will generate a 2nd order polynomial gain correction utilizing your own calibrator observations.  This will remove both the antenna and opacity gain variations, and has the decided advantage of not utilizing opacity models or possibly outdated antenna gain curves.  Use of this procedure is only practical if your observations span a wide range in elevation.

By far the most important gain variation effect is that due to pointing.  Daytime observations on sunny days can suffer pointing errors of up to one arcminute (primarily in elevation).  This effect can be largely removed by utilizing the 'referenced pointing' procedure.  This determines the pointing offset of a nearby calibrator, which is then applied to subsequent target source observations.  It is recommended that this local offset be determined at least hourly, utilizing an object within 15 degrees of the target source -- preferentially at an earlier HA.  Studies show that the maximum pointing error will be reduced to about 7 arcseconds, or better.  VLA staff continue to work on improving this essential methodology.

Although the VLA's new electronics are very stable, gain variations in the system will occur, either due to changes in amplifier gains, or due to changes in internal attenuator settings made by the observing system to ensure that correct voltage levels are provided to the samplers.  These changes are monitored by an internal calibration signal, the results of which are stored in the switched power table (SY table).  For the most accurate flux density bootstrapping, this table must be applied to the visibility data before calibration.  Gain bootstrapping better than 1% can be accomplished for the 8-bit sampler system after application of the SY table data.  For the 3-bit system there is an additional complication, as the values of the SY data are sensitive to the total power, as well as the system gain.  VLA staff are currently working on a methodology to remove the total power dependency.  Not applying the SY table data will reduce bootstrapping accuracy to perhaps 5 to 10%.