A New Perspective on I-LOFAR

This Guest Blog was written by a local secondary school student in Birr who came to visit I-LOFAR and has plans to study Physics at Third Level. 

Hello, I’m Joshua, a sixth-year student of St. Brendan’s Community School Birr. I was recently given the opportunity to avail of a tour of I-LOFAR (the Irish Low Frequency Array). This tour was led by the Head of I-LOFAR, Prof. Peter Gallagher, and the Education and Public Engagement Manager, Áine Flood. On this tour I learned about the fascinating ways in which I-LOFAR works and what it does to broaden the frontiers of science.


What is LOFAR?

I-LOFAR Telescope viewed from the air. Credit: Alison Delaney, Birr Castle

At first glance, the above collection of boxes and antennas may not even resemble a simple telescope, never mind being capable of observing the universe as it was billions of years ago. But the Irish Low Frequency Array is a radio telescope. It detects radio waves, which are part of the Electromagnetic Spectrum, similar to visible light and x-rays but less energetic and with longer wavelengths. These qualities make it possible for the waves emitted by distant celestial objects to penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere and reach detectors on the ground. This allows us to efficiently build a vast, terrestrial, virtual telescope, spanning the continent of Europe. LOFAR is composed of 12 international stations (like the one we have in Birr) that are electronically connected to a computing facility in the Netherlands. There the data collected by the individual telescopes are collated to form images of unprecedented quality, making LOFAR one of the most sophisticated pieces of astrophysics research equipment.


How Does LOFAR Work?

Celestial objects such as stars, pulsars (highly magnetised rotating neutron stars), and galaxies emit a variety of radiation types. I-LOFAR is designed to detect two frequency ranges of radio waves, 10-90 megahertz (MHz) and 110-240 MHz. Unfortunately, the frequencies between 90-110 MHz are used to broadcast FM transmissions, so waves of those frequencies from space are drowned out on earth.

High band antennae on the right, and low band antennae on the left

The low band antennae (pictured above) consist of four receiving wires and an amplifier. Radio waves are absorbed by the wire and produce a voltage, creating an electrical signal. Each antenna has four receiving wires so that the source of the wave can be determined. All antennas are connected to powerful computers at I-LOFAR, where the collected data is converted into useful information. These computers can be accessed by institutions and researchers across Ireland and also by ASTRON in the Netherlands for International research.


The Research of I-LOFAR

Astronomers across Europe utilise LOFAR’s immense power and range to research a variety of cosmological mysteries. There are however, ‘Key Science Projects’ (KSPs) that LOFAR excels in researching. A few of these KSP’s are as follows:

  • The Epoch of Reionisation – A period of the universe’s formation particularly suited to radio exploration.
  • All Sky Surveys – The sensitivity and extremely large field-of-view of LOFAR make it an ideal instrument for undertaking deep, large area sky surveys.
  • Transient Sources – Objects such as supernovae, pulsars, accreting supermassive blackholes all release enormous amounts of energy along with radio emissions. LOFAR’s capabilities are very much suited to monitoring these phenomena.


As a student of physics, it has been extremely beneficial to see concepts that I only encountered in textbooks being applied in the world in which we live, from simple trigonometry to quantum mechanics. I-LOFAR connects Ireland to the international astronomical community and to the Universe beyond.

Joshua exploring the I-LOFAR LBAs with Prof Peter Gallagher and members of the I-LOFAR Consortium from AIT, TCD and DIAS

I-LOFAR Radio Telescope Reveals Secrets of Solar Shockwaves

The Sun may appear to be a constant force in our solar system, but it’s not as sleepy as you may think. In fact, our Sun can produce giant explosions that release vasts amount of electromagnetic radiation and electrically charged particles into space. These explosions, often referred to as solar storms, can be so fierce that they produce shock waves that propagate towards the Earth. Ultimately these shockwaves can cause a variety of potentially dangerous ‘space weather’ effects including interruptions to telecommunications and power, damage to satellites, and astronauts and passengers on commercial aircraft exposed to potentially lethal  doses of radiation. 

A new paper published in the scientific journal Astronomy & Astrophysics by members of the I-LOFAR consortium has provided new insights into how solar storms drive shockwaves.

“On  September 2, 2017, soon after the Irish LOFAR station was turned on, the Sun produced a solar storm that drove a shock wave. We used data from the  NASA and NOAA spacecraft to track the shock wave as it moved through the Sun’s atmosphere, while I-LOFAR was able to detect radio bursts generated by the shock.” said Trinity College Dublin postgraduate student Ciara Maguire, the lead author on the publication.

Caption The Sun’s magnetic fields together is an ultraviolet image of the Sun from NOAA’s GOES spacecraft. The blue arcs tell us where the shock was when a radio burst was observed by I-LOFAR.

These observations enabled scientists to work out how the shock wave accelerated electrons and generated radio bursts. This gives us a detailed insight into how shock waves form and evolve over time. These shocks are a phenomenon found throughout the Universe, including in supernovae, black holes, and distant stars so understanding shocks triggered by the Sun could help to unveil more details about the physics at play.


Additional Notes

I-LOFAR is owned and operated at Birr Castle by Trinity College Dublin on behalf of the I-LOFAR Consortium, which includes Trinity College Dublin, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Armagh Observatory & Planetarium, University College Dublin, University College Cork, National University of Ireland, Galway, and Athlone Institute of Technology.

I-LOFAR is funded by Science Foundation Ireland and the Department of Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. The I-LOFAR fibre link is sponsored by open eir.


Ciara Maguire

Postgraduate Research Student

Trinity College Dublin & Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies

Mobile: +353 86 263 5970


Prof. Peter Gallagher

Head of Irish LOFAR Consortium

Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies & Trinity College Dublin

Mobile: +353 87 656 8975


Learn how to code with CoderDojo and I-LOFAR!

Join I-LOFAR and Coderdojo for a CoderDojo Taster Session in Birr Library on Friday 9th August. The CoderDojo movement believes that an understanding of programming languages is increasingly important in the modern world, that it’s both better and easier to learn these skills early, and that nobody should be denied the opportunity to do so.

Two classes will run throughout the day, at 11:00 – Scratch for Beginners, and at 14:00 – Microbits for Beginners. They are suitable for all ages from 7 to 18 and no experience is required! Under 12s must be accompanied by an adult. There are limited places, so early booking is advised. To book contact Birr Library on (057) 912 4950


A Journey Through the Last 100 Years of Astronomy, Coming to Birr in August 2019!

The International Astronomical Union’s 100th Anniversary Exhibition (IAU100) is coming to Birr! I-LOFAR is delighted to be hosting this unique exhibition celebrating the last 100 years of astronomy around the world. It will be launched on Thursday 8th of August and will then be on display from Friday 9th to Friday 16th of August.

For our launch we are very please to say that we will be joined by Professor Tom Ray from the Dublin Institute of Advanced studies (DIAS), one of our I-LOFAR Consortium members. Prof Ray is one of Ireland’s leading astronomers and the Irish representative on the ESO (European Southern Observatory) council. Prof Ray will be speaking at John’s Hall at 18:00 on Thursday 8th August and all are welcome to attend. 

This exhibition is a journey through some of the most significant and surprising breakthroughs that shaped astronomy, technology and culture over the last century. It is underpinned by three universal questions which are just as relevant today as they were a hundred years ago; 

What is the size and structure of the Universe? 

How do stars form and shine? 

Is there life elsewhere in the universe?

The exhibition has been travelling around the world for the past year, premiering in Vienna at the IAU General Assembly in August 2018, and is now here in Ireland for the next few months. It started in Armagh, until the 31st of July, next stop is Birr, and then it will move on to Dublin, Cork and Galway. 

The IAU100 Exhibition will be displayed in John’s Hall and the I-LOFAR Education Centre here in Birr. Birr Vintage Week and Arts Festival will also be taking place from the 2nd to the 10th of August, so be sure to check it all out!

I-LOFAR is hosting the IAU100 exhibition with support from Science Foundation Ireland and Offaly County Council.

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. 

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



Summer Astronomy Tours in Birr

As part our AstroLands programme we are offering FREE guided tours throughout the summer for all visitors to Birr Castle Gardens and Science Centre.

For the month of June these walking tours will run Tuesday to Saturday at 13:30 from the Leviathan to I-LOFAR, with daily tours from Monday to Saturday throughout July and August. Suitable for all ages and interest levels, the tour will cover the rich history of science, engineering and astronomy in Birr to the present day research happening here in the Midlands with I-LOFAR.

All welcome!



Due to popular demand, we will be running two tours each Saturday throughout July and August, at 12:00 and 15:00.

See you there!

Any queries please contact info@lofar.ie

Launch of I-LOFAR Education Centre & AstroLands Education Programme

Trinity College Dublin, Birr Scientific & Heritage Foundation, and Offaly County Council announce the opening of the I-LOFAR Education Centre and launch of the Astronomical Midlands Schools and Public Engagement Programme, with very special guest Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, on Thursday the 30thof May.

Astronomical Midlands, which has been funded by Science Foundation Ireland, uses the recently refurbished I-LOFAR Education Centre at Birr Castle to connect with students, teachers and members of the public in rural communities in the Midlands. The refurbishment of the Education Centre has been supported by the Department of Culture, Heritage & the Gaeltacht and Offaly County Council.

Áine Flood and Peter Gallagher from the I-LOFAR project together with Margie McCarthy (SFI) and Minister John Halligan.

Speaking about the event, Head of I-LOFAR, Professor Peter Gallagher says:

“Astronomical Midlands or AstroLands for short, will open new conversations with groups that have had little involvement with STEM using this unique new facility at Birr. This is a wonderful opportunity to carry forward the rich scientific heritage of Birr, allowing people in the Midlands to discover opportunities for further education and careers in STEM and inspire the next generation of scientific explorers.”

Funded by Science Foundation Ireland’s Discover Programme and the European Space Education Resource Office (ESERO), Astronomical Midlands will embark on three key initiatives:

  • Space4Exploration: Create an engaging, inspirational and multi-use space in the I-LOFAR Education Centre.
  • Space4Students: Launch day-long and week-long space camps at the Education Centre that run during school term and school holidays for students aged 10 to 14.
  • Space4Teachers: Create CPD workshops for upper primary and lower secondary school teachers based around the National Junior Certificate themes of Earth and Space.

Secondary school students learning about astronomy at the I-LOFAR Education Centre.

The Irish LOFAR Consortium is proud to continue the rich heritage in astronomy at Birr Castle, taking Irish astrophysics from its pioneering days in the 18th century to the current state-of-the-art in the 21st century. The I-LOFAR Education Centre will complement the existing Science Visitor Centre at Birr Castle, which tells the story of past Irish achievements in science. The I-LOFAR Education Centre will provide an inspirational location for education workshops, and community-based STEM projects, such as CoderDojo. It will be equipped with a 3D video globe, a large video wall, numerous interactive flat screen displays, and a LOFAR radio telescope network activity wall.

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

Notes for editors

  • Professor Peter Gallagher is available for interview (peter.gallagher@dias.ie ; +353 87 656 8975).
  • Dependent on schedule, the inspirational Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who co-discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967, may be available for interview. In 2018, she was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. She donated the whole of the £2.3 million prize money to help female, minority, and refugee students become physics researchers.
  • The I-LOFAR radio telescope was primarily funded by Science Foundation Ireland, while membership of the International LOFAR Telescope is supported by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation.

For further information please contact:

Niamh O’Carroll, niamh@ocarrollconsulting.comor, +353 87 6286171

Astronomers Publish New Map of the Sky Detecting Thousands of Previously Unknown Galaxies

– Team includes researchers from University College Dublin

– Data from I-LOFAR telescope in Birr, Co. Offaly used as part of the survey project

An international team of more than 200 astronomers from 18 countries, including researchers from University College Dublin (UCD), has today published the first phase of a major new sky survey at unprecedented sensitivity using the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) telescope.

The survey reveals hundreds of thousands of previously undetected galaxies, shedding new light on many research areas including the physics of black holes and how clusters of galaxies evolve.

A special issue of the scientific journal Astronomy & Astrophysics is dedicated to the first twenty-six research papers describing the survey and its first results.

Radio astronomy reveals processes in the Universe that we cannot see with optical instruments. In this first part of the sky survey, LOFAR observed a quarter of the northern hemisphere at low radio frequencies. At this point, approximately ten percent of that data is now being made public. It maps three hundred thousand sources, almost all of which are galaxies in the distant Universe; their radio signals have travelled billions of light years before reaching Earth.

Associate Professor John Quinn, UCD School of Physics and his PhD student, Sean Mooney, who is supported through an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship, are members of the LOFAR surveys key science project.

They are lead authors on one of the papers published today and contributed to several others. Their paper is focused on the jets from supermassive black holes that are pointed towards the Earth.

Professor Huub Röttgering, Leiden University, and principal investigator of the surveys team said, “If we take a radio telescope and we look up at the sky, we see mainly emission from the immediate environment of massive black holes. With LOFAR we hope to answer the fascinating question: where do those black holes come from?”

“What we do know is that black holes are pretty messy eaters. When gas falls onto them they emit jets of material that can be seen at radio wavelengths.”

Associate Professor John Quinn, UCD School of Physics said, “The LOFAR survey provides us with an unprecedented view of galaxies with supermassive black holes at their centers, and how they evolve. The sensitivity and resolution of this LOFAR survey is unparalleled at low frequencies, and the technological advancements required to make this possible are relatively recent.”

Sean Mooney, PhD student, UCD School of Physics said, “We’re interested in studying high-speed jets of plasma that are ejected from supermassive black holes, and the survey is a goldmine of information for us. Now that the data are public, it will surely prove to be a useful resource for many other astrophysicists around the world also.”

Find out more via this short video via ASTRON

Creating low-frequency radio sky maps requires significant computational resources. Much of the analysis has been done at a data centre at SURFsara in Amsterdam, which hosts over 20,000 terabytes of LOFAR data.

“It is the largest astronomical data collection in the world. Processing the enormous data sets is a huge challenge for scientists. What normally would have taken centuries on a regular computer was processed in less than one year using the high throughput compute cluster (Grid) and expertise”, said Dr Raymond Oonk, SURFsara, a member of the international team of researchers.

Machine learning algorithms are being used to automate parts of the analysis, with some of this work being done at UCD on powerful computing clusters.

The international LOFAR telescope consists of a European network of radio antennas, connected by a high-speed fibre-optic network spanning seven countries. LOFAR was designed, built and is now operated by ASTRON (Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy), with its core located in Exloo in the Netherlands.

The Irish station was installed in the grounds of Birr Castle, Co. Offaly in 2017, with support from Science Foundation Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, the Department of Business, Enterprise, and Innovation, Offaly County Council, the Department of Culture, Heritage, and Gaeltacht, UCD, TCD, Armagh Observatory, DCU, UCC, NUIG, DIAS, and AIT.

The 26 research papers in the special issue of Astronomy & Astrophysics were done with only the first two percent of the sky survey. The team aims to make sensitive high-resolution images of the whole northern sky, which will reveal 15 million radio sources in total.

“This sky map will be a wonderful scientific legacy for the future. It is a testimony to the designers of LOFAR that this telescope performs so well”, said Carole Jackson, Director General of ASTRON.

“Just imagine some of the discoveries we may make along the way. I certainly look forward to it”, she added.

The special issue of Astronomy & Astrophysics is titled LOFAR Surveys.

The paper which Sean Mooney and Associate Professor John Quinn are lead authors is entitled Blazars in the LOFAR Two-Metre Sky Survey First Data Release.

Latest All Sky Images with I-LOFAR

The latest all sky images observed by I-LOFAR show the radio sky above Birr during the day in amazing detail yet again. The images below were recorded and created by undergrad student David McKenna from Trinity College Dublin using code developed during his final year project.

Each image is taken at different times from the observation where astrophysical objects are at their highest in the sky. Included here are Cassiopeia A, the Milky Way and, the North Galactic Spur.  This video shows the entire observation from 20:00 GMT on February 5th to 08:00 GMT on February 6th at 30MHz.

The supernova remnant Cassiopeia A, the brightest source I-LOFAR can see. Watch video

Our galaxy, the Milky Way stretching across the radio sky. Watch video

The North Galctic Spur, a part of the Milky Way projecting towards the north galactic pole. Watch video