Revisiting the radio interferometer measurement equation. I. A full-sky Jones formalism
Context. Since its formulation by Hamaker et al., the radio interferometer measurement equation (RIME) has provided a rigorous mathematical basis for the development of novel calibration methods and techniques, including various approaches to the problem of direction-dependent effects (DDEs). However, acceptance of the RIME in the radio astronomical community at large has been slow, which is partially due to the limited availability of software to exploit its power, and the sparsity of practical results. This needs to change urgently. <BR /> Aims: This series of papers aims to place recent developments in the treatment of DDEs into one RIME-based mathematical framework, and to demonstrate the ease with which the various effects can be described and understood. It also aims to show the benefits of a RIME-based approach to calibration. <BR /> Methods: Paper I re-derives the RIME from first principles, extends the formalism to the full-sky case, and incorporates DDEs. Paper II then uses the formalism to describe self-calibration, both with a full RIME, and with the approximate equations of older software packages, and shows how this is affected by DDEs. It also gives an overview of real-life DDEs and proposed methods of dealing with them. Finally, in Paper III some of these methods are exercised to achieve an extremely high-dynamic range calibration of WSRT observations of 3C 147 at 21 cm, with full treatment of DDEs. <BR /> Results: The RIME formalism is extended to the full-sky case (Paper I), and is shown to be an elegant way of describing calibration and DDEs (Paper II). Applying this to WSRT data (Paper III) results in a noise-limited image of the field around 3C 147 with a very high dynamic range (1.6 million), and none of the off-axis artifacts that plague regular selfcal. The resulting differential gain solutions contain significant information on DDEs and errors in the sky model. <BR /> Conclusions: The RIME is a powerful formalism for describing radio interferometry, and underpins the development of novel calibration methods, in particular those dealing with DDEs. One of these is the differential gains approach used for the 3C 147 reduction. Differential gains can eliminate DDE-related artifacts, and provide information for iterative improvements of sky models. Perhaps most importantly, sources as faint as 2 mJy have been shown to yield meaningful differential gain solutions, and thus can be used as potential calibration beacons in other DDE-related schemes.