Huge radio telescope switched on in Birr Castle in Co. Offaly
A €2 million radio telescope was switched on at Birr Castle in Co Offaly last week. In 1845, in the same place, the 3rd Earl of Rosse built the the biggest optical telescope in the world at the time, the 15-metre long Leviathan – a record it held for for 75 years until 1917.
It’s hi-tech successor, the Irish Low Frequency Array, or I-LOFAR, is part of a €150 million network of radio telescope stations spread across seven European countries.
The system will be used to study objects near and far away from Earth, including the Sun, black holes, magnetic fields, and the emergence of galaxies in the early Universe.
I-LOFAR is made up of 3,000 individual antennae and 55km of wires and cables spread out across an area the size of a football field. It is networked into the international LOFAR network, which comprises thousands of antennae that record measurements at the lowest frequencies that can be observed from the Earth.
Together they comprise the largest virtual radio telescope dish in the world, with a diameter of 2,000km.
All of the 51 antenna stations across the network connect back via high-speed fibre optic cable to a central core in Exloo in the Netherlands.
The data is then combined and processed on a supercomputer in Groningen in the north of the country.
€1.4 million of the funding for the project came from Science Foundation Ireland, with the balance coming from prominent Irish businessmen, local donors and fundraisers in and around Birr. The station was opened by Ireland’s Minister for Training, Skills, Innovation, Research and Development John Halligan.
The LOFAR network was designed and built by ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy. Thirty-eight of the antenna stations are in the Netherlands, six in Germany, three in Poland and one each in France, England, Sweden and Ireland.
I-LOFAR will be run by a consortium of Irish astrophysicists, computer engineers and data scientists, representing Irish universities and institutes of technologies from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The consortium is led by Trinity College Dublin, with partners from University College Dublin, Dublin City University, Athlone Institute of Technology, the National University of Ireland Galway, University College Cork, the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies and Armagh Observatory and Planetarium. The new telescope is located at Birr Castle which has a long history in astronomy.
I-LOFAR is the Irish contribution to a €150 million euro European- wide network of telescopes that combine to form one of the most sophisticated in the world. The telescopes can observe the universe in unprecedented detail through low frequency radio waves.
LOFAR is one of the largest astrophysics projects in Europe, with 11 international stations spread across Germany, Poland, France, the UK and Sweden, with additional stations and a central hub in the Netherlands.