07-06-2013LOFAR to bring cutting-edge network of radio telescopes to Ireland

Picture (from the left to the right): Irish TV presenter Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain, AERAP Initiator Declan Kirrane, Irish MEP Emer Costello and Peter Gallagher (head of Irish LOFAR team)


Dublin, June 6, 2013: Irish astronomers launch campaign to build a "cutting edge" LOFAR radio telescope in Birr Castle Demesne and to connect Ireland to a leading European network of radio telescopes.

To coincide with the European Space Expo’s visit to Trinity College Dublin in June, the Irish LOFAR radio telescope consortium hosted a reception to formally launch a drive to raise funds to build a LOFAR radio telescope in Birr Castle Demesne.

The proceedings - hosted by Irish TV presenter Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain, who was an ´ambassador´ for the Dublin City of Science 2012 - is part of a week-long visit to TCD by the spectacular European Space Expo during the Irish Presidency of the EU.

Prof Peter Gallagher, who leads the Irish LOFAR radio telescope team, explained the importance of the EU-wide initiative for Ireland.

He said, "I-LOFAR will benefit Ireland in various ways.” “An Irish LOFAR station will connect Ireland to a cutting-edge network of radio telescopes that has the potential to revolutionise our understanding of the universe."

At an estimated cost of 1.5m euros the aim is to build an Irish LOFAR station, connecting it to the 150m euros international LOFAR telescope network which is already deployed across Europe.

The I-LOFAR would be located in Birr Castle, near the 3rd Earl of Rosse's Leviathan telescope, which was the largest optical telescope in the world from the mid-1800s to 1920s.

Prof Gallagher adds, "I-LOFAR will fascinate students and inspire them to study science, engineering and mathematics at college. Producing graduates with these skills is key to Ireland’s economic recovery and the developing a smart sustainable economy. Large-scale science projects such as LOFAR are key to capturing students’ imaginations."

He points out that LOFAR is also a "stepping stone" to the mega science project "Square Kilometre Array" (SKA) as well as the African-European Radio Astronomy Platform (AERAP).

An Irish LOFAR station will, he says, enable Irish universities and companies to become "engaged" in SKA and also the developing capacity for radio astronomy in South Africa.

Dr Gallagher said an Irish station would produce "vast quantities" of data and, when operational, would be the biggest source of “big data” in the country.

He said it is expected to bring significant economic benefits, adding, "I-LOFAR will draw attention to the area as a location for technology companies and attract additional tourists into the region."

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Editor’s Note


LOFAR started as a new and innovative effort to force a breakthrough in sensitivity for astronomical observations at radio-frequencies below 250 MHz. The basic technology of radio telescopes had not changed since the 1960's: large mechanical dish antennas collect signals before a receiver detects and analyses them. Half the cost of these telescopes lies in the steel and moving structure. A telescope 100x larger than existing instruments would therefore be unaffordable. New technology was required to make the next step in sensitivity needed to unravel the secrets of the early universe and the physical processes in the centers of active galactic nuclei.

LOFAR is the first telescope of this new sort, using an array of simple omni-directional antennas instead of mechanical signal processing with a dish antenna. The electronic signals from the antennas are digitised, transported to a central digital processor, and combined in software to emulate a conventional antenna. The cost is dominated by the cost of electronics and will follow Moore's law, becoming cheaper with time and allowing increasingly large telescopes to be built. So LOFAR is an IT-telescope. The antennas are simple enough but there are a lot of them - about 7000 in the full LOFAR design. To make radio pictures of the sky with adequate sharpness, these antennas are to be arranged in clusters that are spread out over an area of 100 km in diameter within the Netherlands and over 1500 km throughout Europe. Data transport requirements are in the range of many Tera-bits/sec and the processing power needed is tens of Tera-FLOPS.

It was soon realised that LOFAR could be turned into a more generic Wide Area Sensor Network. Sensors for geophysical research and studies in precision agriculture have been incorporated in LOFAR already. Several more applications are being considered, given the increasing interest in sensor networks that “bring the environment on-line.”

Further information: www.lofar.org  and www.lofar.ie (Irish Low Frequency Array (I-LOFAR)

Picture above: http://www.lofar.ie/news

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