An image made from untapered uniformly-weighted hour tracks in a standard VLA configuration at declinations above , where foreshortening of the array is relatively unimportant, has a synthesized beam whose half-power beamwidth is given approximately by
where is the observing frequency in GHz and n=1, 2, 3, or 4 for the A, B, C, or D configuration, respectively. The exact beamwidth depends on declination, and on details of the u-v coverage. But this estimate will do for planning purposes.
It is crucial to choose a suitable combination of and n when planning VLA observations. For example, suppose you want to study a smooth two-dimensional emission region 30'' across whose peak apparent brightness would be 1 mJy per CLEAN beam area on an untapered 20 cm image in the B configuration (resolution 4''). It could be detected at the level in about 10 min of integration at 50 MHz bandwidth in the B configuration (using the sensitivity data given in Table 5 and natural weighting). This is an easy experiment!
But now suppose you try to image the same region using the A configuration, keeping everything else--observing frequency, tapering, u-v weighting, bandwidth--the same. The region will have a peak apparent brightness of only 0.1 mJy per beam area (the synthesized HPBW will now be ). A detection would therefore require about 14 hours of on-source integration! This shows why it is extremely important not to use a wider VLA configuration (i.e., smaller beam area ) than is strictly necessary, when studying extended emission.
The choice is even more delicate if you are picking the observing frequency at which to image steep-spectrum extended radio emission using a given VLA configuration. The combined effects of a steep spectrum and changing angular resolution can make such emission much harder to detect with a given VLA configuration at the higher frequencies. For example, suppose that an extended emission region has a peak intensity of 1 mJy per CLEAN beam area in the VLA's A configuration at 20 cm--a detection would be made in 10 minutes. If the region has a spectrum, the peak intensity in the A configuration at 6 cm would be 0.029 mJy per CLEAN beam area and a detection would need a week of integration!
For sources with compact flat-spectrum components and extended steep-spectrum emission, the dynamic range needed to image the extended structure increases rapidly with increasing frequency. Suppose that the extended emission referred to in the previous example surrounded a 5 mJy point source with a spectrum. The dynamic range required for detection of the extended structure would be 50:1 in the A configuration at 20 cm. This is easy to obtain. The dynamic range required in the A configuration at 6 cm would be 1900:1, a non-trivial goal without self-calibration. At shorter wavelengths, the dynamic range requirements would be still greater but the atmospheric coherence times would likely be shorter and the self-calibration correspondingly more difficult.