South Dome Refracting Telescope

Blog 3 – DIAS and Dunsink!

This week Jane and I are continuing to develop exhibits for the I-LOFAR Education Centre, creating posters and interactive elements to display for the public. Tour numbers have increased as Birr Castle reaches its summer peak, and a large number of people have booked for the 50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing ‘Star-B-Q’ at Birr Castle on Saturday the 20th of July! We’re also currently planning drop in workshops for young people on Thursday the 18th and Saturday the 20th of July.

On Wednesday we visited the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) Astronomy and Astrophysics Department in Fitzwilliam Place in Dublin to attend a talk given by the Director of the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), Dr. Sean Dougherty. ALMA is one of the world’s largest and most powerful telescopes, located in the Atacama Desert, Chile. The main array consists fifty 12 meter diameter dishes using interferometry (the same technology used in LOFAR) to act as one giant dish. There are another sixteen dishes at the site, four of which are 12 meters in diameter and the remaining twelve with 7 meter diameters. The dishes can be concentrated in a 150 meter area or moved apart to create a baseline of 16 km. They observe the universe in the millimeter and sub-millimeter wavelengths of light, in search of the formation of galaxies in the early universe and exoplanet formation around distant stars. (LOFAR in comparison observes in meter wavelengths)

DIAS – Director of ALMA talk. Credit DIAS Astronomy and Astrophysics

After the Director’s talk we visited Dunsink Observatory. The Observatory was constructed in 1785 using money left by the provost of  Trinity College Dublin Francis Andrews in his will. It was run for a time by William Rowan Hamilton, the famous mathematician who developed Hamiltonian Mechanics and Quaternions (which are used in 3D Graphics). Many astronomers used the telescope to observe the night skies until Dublin expanded around it and light pollution reduced its visibility. The site was the first in Ireland to be given the title ‘European site of historical significance’ by the European Physical Society in recognition of its history. Today it is run by DIAS and is being refurbished. The large room that once housed the transit circle used to calculate ‘Dunsink Time’ (and hence ‘Dublin time’) now hosts open nights for the public. There are two domes visible at the observatory. The one on the roof of the building housed a smaller telescope said to be used by Hamilton’s students. It is now replaced with a modern refracting telescope. The large ‘South Dome’ on the front lawn houses the original 12 inch refracting telescope. We met some of the summer interns at DIAS who are in the process of creating a museum on the ground floor for the public and they gave us a tour of the incredible artefacts and history within the observatory.

DIAS fron

DIAS Front Door Plaque

Dunsink Observatory

12 Inch Refracting Telescope in South Dome Dunsink

Star Map for the Blind at Dunsink Observatory

Jane and I are taking a road trip to Armagh this weekend to visit Armagh Observatory and Planetarium and the IAU 100 Exhibit so keep an eye out for our next blog!

Blog post written by Jeremy, you can find him on Twitter @jeremy.rigney. Jane is also on Twitter, find her @JaneDooley98

AstroLands Launch and I-LOFAR Education Centre Opening

On Thursday 30th May 2019, the I-LOFAR Education Centre was opened and the Astronomical Midlands Education and Public Engagement Programme was launched. The launch was well attended, with honorary guest Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell giving an inspirational speech on the day. Professor Bell Burnell discovered pulsars in 1967 as a student at the University of Cambridge and was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in 2018 for this incredible feat. Other speakers included Professor Peter Gallagher, head of I-LOFAR and Senior Professor at DIAS, and Councillor Danny Owens, Cathaoirleach, Offaly County Council. A reception followed the opening, hosted by Lord and Lady Rosse in Birr Castle.



The Astronomical Midlands (AstroLands) Programme aims to create an engaging space inside the Education Centre, to launch space camps and workshops for students and schools and to create CPD workshops for upper primary and lower secondary school teachers based on Junior Certificate themes of Earth and Space. AstroLands was funded by Science Foundation Ireland and the European Space Education Resource Office (ESERO).


The I-LOFAR Education Centre was developed in partnership with Offaly County Council and has been supported by a grant from the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affair’s Rural Economic Development Zone (REDZ) initiative. 

Blog 2 – Observing, Camps and Exhibits

This week Jeremy and I have been finalising preparations for Space Camp 2019, a summer camp for 8-12 year olds run by I-LOFAR and Birr Castle. It will take place over four days from the 15th to the 18th of July and we are really looking forward to it! This has involved lots of arts and crafts, like making planets out of balloons and rice, and cutting up cardboard to make models of the Earth-Sun-Moon orbit. It makes us feel like big children!


Planets made from rice and balloons!


We have also been planning exhibit pieces to be displayed in the Education Centre here at I-LOFAR to showcase what we do and how radio astronomy works. These include topics such as RFI (Radio Frequency Interference), the electromagnetic (EM) and atmospheric absorption spectrums, and the Drake Equation


RFI in radio astronomy is any source of transmission that is within the observed frequency band, other than the celestial sources being observed. Signals from Earth can be much stronger that the signals of interest as they are so much closer, so RFI is a major issue when performing radio astronomy. RFI can be caused by a number of things, like manmade transmitters or natural phenomena such as lightning. To be able to able to observe with LOFAR at high sensitivities, RFI needs to be accurately detected.


The EM spectrum is the range of frequencies and wavelengths of EM radiation. The radio section of the EM spectrum encompasses a much wider range of wavelengths than the visible, and those are the only two types of EM waves that can pass through the Earth’s atmosphere. This means the only types of astronomy that can be conducted from the ground are radio and optical. Others such as x-ray and gamma ray astronomy have to be performed high up the mountains or in space. You could say that LOFAR is very down to Earth! 


The Drake Equation estimates the number of technological civilisations that may exist in our galaxy. There is no unique solution to this equation, but it summarises the concepts which must be considered when questioning the existence of communicative extraterrestrial life. I-LOFAR may be used to assist in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in collaboration with the Breakthrough Listen foundation


This week Jeremy and I got to make observations with I-LOFAR! I was able to observe the Crab Pulsar for 10 minutes and Jeremy looked at two bright millisecond pulsars. We used the new REALTA (REALtime Transient Acquisition Cluster) system, which gives us millisecond time resolution in our observations. We are looking forward to analysing this data in the coming weeks, hopefully we’ll be able to detect the pulses! 


Of course, we are still giving daily astronomy tours from the Leviathan to I-LOFAR and these have been getting quite busy! It’s great to see so many people interested and asking questions. We also had a few canine visitors to add our #DogsofILOFAR, keep an eye out on our Twitter and Instagram for pictures! We have added an extra tour on Saturdays. They now take place at 13:30 Monday -Friday, and at 12:00 and 15:00 Saturday! 


Next Wednesday we will be visiting DIAS and Dunsink observatory in Dublin, we are really excited! Make sure to check back next week for our blog post about this. 


Blog post written by Jane, you can find her on Twitter @JaneDooley98. Jeremy is also on twitter, find him @jeremy.rigney

Space Camp 2019 is Go for Launch!

The I-LOFAR Education Team are excited to announce the launch of Space Camp 2019! There will be two camps in July and August this Summer. 

The first, running from the 15th to the 18th of July from 10am-2pm each day, is aimed at young people aged 8-12 and will cover the planets in the Solar System, space exploration and man on the moon. This camp is run in conjunction with Birr Castle.

The second is geared towards teens aged 14-16 and will run for three days in August, from 12th to 14th. This camp will cover a more in depth look at our solar system and explore other cosmic bodies including galaxies and black holes. Stay tuned for more information about times and booking. 

The camps will be held in the I-LOFAR Education Centre and the Pavillion on the grounds of Birr Castle. Contact Birr Castle reception at 057 912 0336 to book your place. Spaces are limited so book now!

Poster for Space Camp 2019