€1.4m LOFAR telescope in Birr brings Irish astrophysics to big leagues

13 Jan 2016

Ireland now finds itself among the big leagues of astrophysics in Europe with the opening of a €1.4m low frequency array (LOFAR) telescope in Birr, Co Offaly.

The efforts to establish a LOFAR telescope here have been ongoing for some time now, but following the announcement of yesterday’s €28m in research funding provided by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), a telescope will now be built at Birr Castle, which was once home to the largest telescope on Earth in 1845.

Led by the Irish consortium backing the LOFAR project, I-LOFAR, the €1.4m funding from the SFI will be joined by €500,000 generated in philanthropic funding to build the telescope to join the wider European network of similar telescopes called the International LOFAR Telescope (ILT).

The LOFAR telescope in Birr, once completed, will be the ILT’s most westerly telescope, with the ILT network stretching from Ireland to the town of Bałdy in eastern Poland, along with in its six partner countries and 50 antenna stations spread across the continent.

The LOFAR telescopes are some of the most advanced in astronomy and, with the network the Irish telescope is now joining, it will be able to research the origin of the first galaxies, black holes and gas clouds seen at the birth of our universe.

LOFAR telescopes map

All of the LOFAR telescope locations. Image via ILT

Answering cutting-edge questions

Speaking of its importance, director of the ILT,Dr Rene Vermeulen, said: “The added Irish antenna station will be an excellent enhancement, extending the ILT to a pan-European fibre-connected network spanning nearly 2,000 km. Such long distances allow exquisitely finely detailed sky imaging capability.

“And, at least as importantly, the Irish astronomical community will now add their expertise and effort to the ‘ILT family’, in the pursuit of a great many cutting-edge science questions that LOFAR can answer. Topics range from the properties of the Earth’s upper atmosphere, flaring of the sun, out to the far reaches of the early universe when the first stars and galaxies formed.”

Trinity College Dublin’s (TCD) Prof Peter Gallagher will lead the I-LOFAR initiative and added his own delight on the confirmation of funding: “The Irish LOFAR station at Birr builds on Ireland’s great scientific heritage of the Leviathan Telescope of Birr and will connect us to the largest low-frequency radio telescope in the world.

“I-LOFAR will also inspire students to study science, engineering and computer science, and attract additional visitors to Birr. It will also act as a magnet to attract technology companies to the area.”

Night sky image via Bureau of Land Management/Flickr

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic