VLA Samplers

by Stephan W. Witz last modified Mar 19, 2017 by Tony Perreault

The VLA is equipped with two different types of samplers, 8-bit with 1GHz bandwidth, and 3-bit with 2GHz bandwidth. The choice depends on your science goals and on technicalities described below.

The 8-bit Set consists of four 8-bit samplers running at 2048 GSamp/sec. The four samplers are arranged in two pairs, each pair providing 1024 MHz bandwidth in both polarizations. The two pairs are denoted A0/C0 and B0/D0. Taken together, the four samplers offer a maximum of 2048 MHz coverage with full polarization. The frequency spans sampled by the two pairs need not be adjacent. Some restrictions apply, depending on band, as described in the section on Frequency Bands and Tunability.

The 3-bit Set consists of eight 3-bit samplers running at 4096 GSamp/sec. The eight samplers are arranged as four pairs, each pair providing 2048 MHz bandwidth in both polarizations. Two of these pairs, denoted A1/C1 and A2/C2 cannot span more than 5000 MHz (lower edge of one to the higher edge of the other). The same limitation applies to the second pair, denoted B1/D1 and B2/D2. The tuning restrictions are described in the section on Frequency Bands and Tunability. Taken together, the eight 3-bit samplers offer a maximum of 8192 MHz coverage with full polarization.


Which set to use?

  • S, L, and 4/P-band observations, whether line or continuum, should use the 8-bit sampler set.
  • C and X-band continuum observations should use 3-bit samplers in order to exploit the full 4 GHz bandwidth: in spite of the 15% reduction in sensitivity that comes with 3-bit (at equal bandwidth to the 8-bit samplers—see below for details) and the reduced effective bandwidth after removing RFI, this still provides superior overall sensitivity. For more details we refer to EVLA memo 166.
  • Ku, K, Ka, and Q-band continuum observations should use the 3-bit samplers for maximum bandwidth.
  • Wide-band spectral line searches requiring more than 2 GHz span should use the 3-bit samplers.
  • Spectral-line observations which fit within two, possibly disjoint, 1 GHz bands should use the 8-bit set.
  • Simultaneous continuum and high resolution spectral line observation can use mixed 3-bit and 8-bit samplers. The 3-bit samplers in this case will be set up to deliver the continuum data, while the 8-bit samplers will be for the spectral line data. This mix mode can be used in C-band and higher.

Major Characteristics of each Set

The 8-bit samplers are warranted for observations at 4/P, L, and S-bands. The full analog bandwidth from the receivers fits within the 2048 MHz span covered by the samplers.

For the 3-bit samplers, users need to be aware of the following issues:

  • Sensitivity: compared to the 8-bit system, the sensitivity of the 3-bit samplers is worse by ~15% (at equal bandwidth). Alternatively, a given continuum noise level requiring on-source integration time T with the 8-bit (two bands of 1GHz), requires 0.33T with the 3-bit (4 bands of 2GHz, assuming the bandwidth is available from the front end).
  • Resonances: each of the eight 3-bit samplers on an antenna has a resonance about 3 MHz wide. Each resonance is independent of all others, so there is no correlated signal between antennas. The resonance degrades the spectrum in its narrow frequency range, but has little effect on continuum observing. Bandpass solutions will be affected, but can be interpolated over. Spectral-line calibration and images at the affected frequencies will show significant loss in sensitivity. The resonances are easily seen in autocorrelation spectra, and it is recommended that users, especially spectral-line users, utilize these to locate the compromised frequencies.
  • Amplitude Calibration: The traditional method for both 8- and 3-bit systems is to observe a flux-density calibrator, use self-cal to determine the antenna amplitude calibration factors (gains), and transfer the gains to the phase calibrator and target. For 3-bit samplers this procedure gives results good to 5% between elevations of 20–70 degrees. (Expect worse at the upper edge of Q-band and/or during bad weather.) The switched power data can be used to correct for system gain variations and works well for the 8-bit samplers. For 3-bit samplers, the Pdif depends on the Psum, i.e., Pdif is non-linear and its application will bias the resulting visibilities by 5–10%. The origin of this effect is understood, but we have not yet determined how best to compensate for it. Because of this, we do not recommend use of the Psum and Pdif data to calibrate visibilities from the 3-bit samplers. We do, however, recommend that the requantizer gains in the switched power data be applied to remove gain changes. For more information about the switched power, Psum, and Pdif, see EVLA memo 145.


Setting up the 8-bit or 3-bit Samplers

Either set requires an initial scan for each individual LO (frequency) tuning, during which power levels are optimized.

For the 8-bit system, a dummy scan of 1 minute duration is sufficient for each tuning. This  is usually done while the antennas are slewing at the start of an observing file, as the pointing direction of the antennas is not critical.

For the 3-bit system, the requirements are more demanding, see the section on 3-bit setup within the Guide to Observing with the VLA. The minimum setup time is 1 minute for each tuning to adjust the power levels and bandpass slopes across the 2GHz samplers. These values are retained and applied if the tuning is re-encountered in the same observation. Additionally, every time the LO setup is changed—whether or not it is new (e.g., changing from 8-bit X-band reference pointing back to target)—a scan of 30 seconds is needed to reset the subband gains (requantizers) in the correlator. For better amplitude calibration at high frequencies, the 3-bit initial setup should be near the elevation of the target, so do it after the first 8-bit setup described above. For 3-bit observing without 8-bit (e.g., C or X-band without reference pointing), the power variation with elevation is small, so the 3-bit setup can be done at any elevation.

For settings that use a mix of 3-bit and 8-bit samplers, the guidelines to set up the 3-bit samplers should be followed.

Other issues

The overhead for setup of 3-bit samplers can eat into observing time, especially for projects with many different LO settings, and/or sources all over the sky accompanied by band change, reference pointing, and requantizer reset for each direction. The impact is most severe for short scheduling blocks.

Polarization testing conducted so far indicates no degradation of performance by using the 3-bit samplers.