When we think of astronomy, many of us imagine a lone figure outside in the cold and dark peering at a single star through a telescope. Astronomy – even at an amateur level – is much more interesting that that, as we work together with other astronomers to look not only at stars, but planets, moons, vast clouds of gas and dust, entire galaxies, clusters of stars, and more. This year, astronomy in Ireland is going to get even more exciting, as we will soon begin looking into the depths of space, back in time, to a point not long after the Universe came into existence.

Following an award of €1.4million from Science Foundation Ireland, the LOFAR project will extend into Ireland with a new facility to be built in Birr, Co Offaly. LOFAR is the biggest telescope of its type, and from this year will extend from Ireland right across to Poland, effectively making it a telescope the size of Europe.

LOFAR stands for Low-Frequency Array for Radio astronomy, and is a special kind of telescope that can “see” radio waves instead of visible light, like optical telescopes do. Objects in space such as stars and galaxies (and objects on Earth for that matter, including people!) all emit radio waves in much the same way that they emit visible light. In fact, you could think of radio waves as just being another “colour of light” that our eyes can’t see. A key advantage of observing the Universe with radio is that radio waves aren’t blocked by clouds and can still be observed during the day, two factors that limit the uses of optical telescopes. This makes a radio astronomy facility ideal for Ireland, as our weather is less than impressive when it comes to looking up at the sky!

Radio telescopes don’t have lenses or eyepieces that you can look through in the same way optical telescopes have. Instead, a radio receiver is used to read in the signal. These receivers work on the same principle as the radios in your home or car. The telescopes themselves can take on different forms, depending on what frequencies it’s designed to look at. I visited the Northern Cross Radio Telescope in Italy some years ago, for example, and it has one telescope in the form of a giant dish, and another made of an array of antenna elements.

A photo I took of the telescopes at the Northern Cross facility

A photo I took of the telescopes at the Northern Cross facility in 2006

One of the primary projects for LOFAR will be to peer back in time to the early Universe to the Epoch of Reionisation, when the atomic and electrical properties of the material in the Universe changed so that it became transparent, and finally allowed light to start travelling through space. LOFAR will also look at deep extragalactic targets, such as black holes in other galaxies far away from the Milky Way. Black holes are a type of dead star that form when the internal pressure from heat inside a massive star becomes too weak to withstand the force of gravity, causing the star to collapse. The material from the star gets so dense that the gravitational field becomes very strong; so strong that not even light can escape. A bit closer to home, LOFAR will also look at radio emissions from the Sun and allows us to study space weather in more detail. Solar flares and coronal mass ejections from the Sun can trigger spectacular displays of the Northern Lights, but they can also cause damage to satellites in space and can affect international communications. By studying space weather, we’ll be able to develop technology to protect our communications systems much better.

The €1.4million award from SFI, along with €0.5million in philanthropic grants and donations, will now allow a new station, called I-LOFAR, to be built on the grounds of Birr Castle. The Castle is already famous for being the home of the Leviathan telescope, which was once the biggest telescope in the world.

Professor Peter Gallagher, Head of I-LOFAR, stated on Twitter that the news of the award from SFI and thus the go-ahead for the project “was the highlight of my career to date. The dream to build a LOFAR telescope in Ireland will happen.”

In an announcement of the news, Prof Gallagher said:

“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.”

Dr. Rene Vermeulen, Director of the International LOFAR Telescope (ILT), is delighted with the news of the award:

“The added Irish antenna station will be an excellent enhancement, extending the ILT to a pan-European fibre-connected network spanning nearly 2000 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.”

Not only will I-LOFAR provide an amazing opportunity for astronomers here in Ireland, but will also push Ireland further up the ranks of international science. The data collected will allow our student and graduate astronomers to discover new things about the Universe, as well as add to an ever-growing wealth of data and information for use by scientists around the world.

You can find out more about I-LOFAR and keep up with its progress at www.lofar.ie. You can also follow on Twitter at @I_LOFAR