Explore the universe: €1.4m LOFAR radio telescope switched on in Ireland

27 Jul 2017

The Irish LOFAR radio telescope at Birr Castle with the Milky Way overhead. Image: Luis Alberto Canizares

Ireland joins the international LOFAR telescope, a €150m network of radio telescopes distributed across Europe.

Birr Castle is once again operational as a cutting-edge astrophysics nerve centre.

About €2m has been invested in the I-LOFAR (Irish Low-Frequency Array) to propel Ireland to the forefront of radio astronomy.

‘It will be used to study the early universe, detect exploding stars, search for new planets and understand the effects of the sun on the Earth’

I-LOFAR is the size of a football field and consists of 3,000 individual antennae and 55km worth of wires and cables.

The system will enable astronomers to study objects in space including the sun, black holes and magnetic fields.

“Science Foundation Ireland has supported this through an investment of €1.4m, to ensure that we have world-class research facilities in Ireland that enable researchers to explore new ideas in the areas of radio astronomy, big data, data analytics and supercomputing,” said Prof Mark Ferguson, director general of Science Foundation Ireland.

“I am confident that this cutting-edge infrastructure will create exciting opportunities for new and innovative collaborations between researchers, and enable them to secure future funding from industry and from EU programmes.”

I-LOFAR will open up a new era

LOFAR is one of the largest astrophysics projects in Europe, consisting of 11 international stations spread across Germany, Poland, France, the UK and Sweden, with additional stations and a central hub in the Netherlands, operated by the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy.

The network uses state-of-the-art data processing and storage systems as well as computing techniques to combine the entire network into a telescope that is the effective size of the European continent.

I-LOFAR will be the Irish addition to this network and the 12th international station to be built in Europe. It will allow Irish astrophysical research to be integrated into one of the most sophisticated telescopes on the planet.

“The Irish LOFAR radio telescope opens up a new era of astronomical research in Ireland and connects us to the leading network of radio telescopes in Europe. It will be used to study the early universe, detect exploding stars, search for new planets and understand the effects of the sun on the Earth,” said Prof Peter Gallagher, head of the I-LOFAR collaboration and associate dean of research at Trinity College Dublin (TCD).

“The huge volumes of data that the radio telescope will produce requires us to develop new software and data analytics techniques to process and understand the data. I-LOFAR really is a testbed for big data in Ireland.”

The location of the Irish station is at the centre of the country, on the grounds of Birr Castle, Co Offaly. This is where, in 1845, the third Earl of Rosse built the 15-metre long Leviathan – the biggest optical telescope in the world at the time. It retained this title for 75 years.

I-LOFAR will be run by a consortium of Irish astrophysicists, computer engineers and data scientists, representing Irish universities and institutes of technology from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The consortium is led by TCD, with partners from University College Dublin, Dublin City University, Athlone Institute of Technology, National University of Ireland Galway, University College Cork, the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, and Armagh Observatory and Planetarium.

Open Eir provided the high-speed fibre connection required to power the telescope.

Eir CEO Richard Moat said: “We have deployed cutting-edge fibre wavelength technology, providing 10GB uncontended symmetrical access to I-LOFAR at Birr Castle.

“These speeds are game-changing for I-LOFAR, and enable the team to transmit and exchange vast amounts of data to the I-LOFAR network in Europe. Working in collaboration with HEAnet, we have connected the circuit to Groningen in the Netherlands, which is currently transmitting 3.2Gbps.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years