Data received at each antenna in the array include arrival times from a local atomic clock, such as a hydrogen maser. At a later time, the data are correlated with data from other antennas that recorded the same radio signal, to produce the resulting image. The resolution achievable using interferometry is proportional to the observing frequency. The VLBI technique enables the distance between telescopes to be much greater than that possible with conventional interferometry, which requires antennas to be physically connected by coaxial cable, waveguide, optical fiber, or other type of transmission line. The greater telescope separations are possible in VLBI due to the development of the closure phase imaging technique by Roger Jennison in the 1950s, allowing VLBI to produce images with superior resolution.
VLBI is best known for imaging distant cosmic radio sources, spacecraft tracking, and for applications in astrometry. However, since the VLBI technique measures the time differences between the arrival of radio waves at separate antennas, it can also be used "in reverse" to perform earth rotation studies, map movements of tectonic plates very precisely (within millimetres), and perform other types of geodesy. Using VLBI in this manner requires large numbers of time difference measurements from distant sources (such as quasars) observed with a global network of antennas over a period of time.
Some of the scientific results derived from VLBI include:
There are several VLBI arrays located in Europe, Canada, the United States, Russia, South Korea, Japan, Mexico, and Australia. The most sensitive VLBI array in the world is the European VLBI Network (EVN). This is a part-time array that brings together the largest European radiotelescopes for typically weeklong sessions, with the data being processed at the Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe (JIVE). The Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), which uses ten dedicated, 25-meter telescopes spanning 5351 miles across the United States, is the largest VLBI array that operates all year round as both an astronomical and geodesy instrument. The combination of the EVN and VLBA is known as Global VLBI. When one or both of these arrays are combined with space-based VLBI antennas such as HALCA or RadioAstron (Spektr-R), the resolution obtained is higher than any other astronomical instrument, capable of imaging the sky with a level of detail measured in microarcseconds. VLBI generally benefits from the longer baselines afforded by international collaboration, with a notable early example in 1976, when radio telescopes in the United States, USSR and Australia were linked to observe hydroxyl-maser sources. This technique is currently being used by the Event Horizon Telescope, whose goal is to observe the supermassive black holes at the centers of the Milky Way Galaxy and Messier 87.
VLBI has traditionally operated by recording the signal at each telescope on magnetic tapes or disks, and shipping those to the correlation center for replay. Recently, it has become possible to connect VLBI radio telescopes in close to real-time, while still employing the local time references of the VLBI technique, in a technique known as e-VLBI. In Europe, six radio telescopes of the European VLBI Network (EVN) are now connected with Gigabit per second links via their National Research Networks and the Pan-European research network GEANT2, and the first astronomical experiments using this new technique were successfully conducted in 2011.