The world's largest array of radio telescopes to detect some of the shortest radio waves in the universe will be built under an innovative partnership of the universities of Maryland, Illinois and California at Berkeley, greatly accelerating U.S. research in the field.

Astronomers say the $4.2 million project will enable those in the relatively young and hotly competitive field known as millimeter astronomy to achieve a fivefold increase in their capacity to gather data.

For the University of Maryland, it means new prestige for the astronomy program, with access to the best instrument in the field. An East Coast observing center and laboratory for analyzing the data are to be set up at the College Park campus.

"The field is basically new for the university," said Roger Bell, director of Maryland's astronomy program. The project, known as the Berkeley-Illinois-Maryland Array, is expected not only to enhance the attractions of the astronomy department for faculty and students but also to attract leading astronomers from throughout the eastern seaboard to make observations, he said.

Millimeter astronomers focus on detecting faint emissions from the space that separates the stars in order to study processes and structures, largely hidden from optical telescopes, such as star formation within vast clouds of interstellar dust, the birth of planets in new solar systems and far-distant radio wave sources such as quasars.

"To speed up by a factor of five is not just a matter of convenience. It means we can begin to understand in my lifetime what are the common threads in different interstellar regions and what the processes of evolution are," said Jack Welsh, director of the University of California at Berkeley Radioastronomy Laboratory, which pioneered in the field beginning in the late 1960s.

The three university program directors met at the College Park campus yesterday.

The project will add three new radio telescopes, six meters in diameter, to three already operating at Berkeley's Hat Creek Radio Observatory near Mount Lassen in northern California. It also will incorporate the powerful computer capacity of the Illinois supercomputer center, supplemented by the laboratory to be set up at College Park, to rapidly process the huge quantities of data, in effect making the computers an integral part of the instrument, astronomers said.

The telescopes will be remote controlled, enabling faculty, students and visiting scientists to point the telescopes and receive the data through satellite links from the Maryland and Illinois sites.

The key to this type of astronomy is the ability to pair two telescopes to track objects across the sky and then compare their data in order to produce fine detail and resolve overlapping points of light into distinct images. The addition of three more telescopes makes possible five times as many pairings using one arrangement of telescopes, Welsh said.

In the past, in order to create new pairings, after a day of data collection each of the three 40-ton telescope antennas was moved to a new location in Hat Creek, using transporters with thick tires, and the telescopes had to be recalibrated, Welsh said.

It will now be possible to create 15 pairs instead of three at one time, making it possible to do in a half day the amount of data collection that previously took two months.

Illinois' computers will act as a part of the telescope array, converting the data into images of the "radio sky" that will appear in color on TV monitors, according to Richard Crutcher, professor of astronomy at Illinois.

The superfast computers will reduce several weeks' worth of data reduction to a few minutes, he said. "The astronomer can spend most of his time doing science instead of struggling in front of a computer terminal."

Astronomer Peter Boyce, executive officer of the American Astronomical Society, said the move had major significance for Maryland's astronomy department. "This is one of the finest projects I've seen a proposal for in a long time. Nobody else has anything like it."

Although radio astronomy projects traditionally have been federally funded, in this case the three universities are putting up the money, said Boyce, who, when he was with the National Science Foundation, was responsible for funding such projects.

Maryland initially will contribute $1.8 million, of which $1.2 million will buy telescope equipment at Hat Creek and the remainder will establish the new College Park facility; in addition, it will pay $370,000 a year for operations.