Ireland to fund membership of European telescope network

29 Jun 2017

Image: Bill Chizek/Shutterstock

And so it’s official: the Irish government is now funding the country’s membership for a major Europe-wide telescope network.

Last September, the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) director general, Prof Tim de Zeeuw, swooped into Ireland on a mission.

Speaking at the Irish National Astronomy Meeting at UCD, one of his primary concerns appeared to be recruiting the country into his organisation.

While that mission has, as yet, proved unsuccessful, Ireland is powering ahead with its other astronomy projects: namely joining the LOFAR(Low Frequency Array) telescope network.

LOFAR is an international, €150m network of radio telescopes distributed across Europe. The huge volume of data from all the telescopes is combined using advanced data analytics on a supercomputer in the Netherlands.

The network, therefore, performs like a single, super-telescope of a size equivalent to the geographical separation of the constituent telescopes.

Yesterday (28 June), Minister of State for Training, Skills, Innovation, Research and Development John Halligan, TD, announced that Ireland was now part of the network.

A combined move by the State and Trinity College Dublin (TCD), the Irish telescope is soon to be located in Birr, Co Offaly.

Costing €1.9m in total, the construction of the equipment was confirmed last year for Birr Castle. It will sit adjacent to the historic Leviathan telescope, which was built by the third Earl of Rosse in 1845 and was the largest optical telescope in the world until 1917.

“Joining the international LOFAR telescope collaboration will open many new research and funding opportunities for Irish researchers and students in Europe and further afield,” said Dr Patrick Prendergast, provost of TCD.

“Indeed, one of the I-LOFAR (Irish arm) team, Tom Ray, a professor at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies and an adjunct professor of astronomy at Trinity, has recently won a prestigious €2m advanced grant from the European Research Council.”

Joining LOFAR will support exciting, world-class scientific research and, in addition, the data-intensive nature of radio astronomy will enhance Ireland’s world-leading capability in big data and data analytics.

The skills in software and big data that young researchers will acquire from participation in LOFAR are in high demand in business, and will open diverse and high-quality career opportunities for them.

Prof Peter Gallagher, head of the I-LOFAR collaboration, said: “This is the first time that a research-grade radio telescope has been built in Ireland.

“I-LOFAR will enable Irish researchers to study solar activity and exploding stars, search for new planets and explore the distant universe in a completely new way.

“And this will be achieved by developing cutting-edge data analytics techniques on supercomputers here in Ireland and the Netherlands. I-LOFAR really will be a testbed for big data and data analytics.”

Updated, 3.05pm, 30 January 2017: The opening of this article has reflected to show Prof Tim de Zeeuw was lobbying for Ireland to join ESO, not LOFAR.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic