First Pulsar Light with I-LOFAR!

Pulsars are rotating neutron stars that beam radiation into space like rapidly rotating lighthouses. Last week a team of scientists from Ireland and the UK used I-LOFAR and a new Dell-EMC cluster called the “REALtime Transient Acquisition Cluster (REALTA)” to observe our first pulsar, B0950+08.

The plot below shows the first thirty seconds of an observation of pulsar with the I-LOFAR station at Birr, Co. Offaly. Signals that travel through the interstellar medium are delayed in a frequency-dependent way as they travel to Earth – the greater the distance the greater the delay. Here we recorded data from the direction of this pulsar and compensated for a range of different delays.

First pulsar light with I-LOFAR! Pulses detected every ~253.0638 milliseconds.

Every pulse detected is shown as a dot and the stronger the pulse the larger the dot. We can see a number of very strong pulses peaking at the delay corresponding to a distance of 260 parsec which is about 850 light years. This is the distance of the pulsar, and further examination of the time between the pulses shows that they come periodically every 253.0638 milliseconds – this is the rotation rate of the pulsar – there are about 4 pulsar ‘days’ every second for this star. This sounds extreme but it is in fact quite typical for a pulsar – the very fastest pulsar we know of spins 716 times per second with the ‘slowest’ taking 23.5 seconds to rotate once.

This is the first pulsar to be detected with I-LOFAR and marks the beginning of pulsar observing at the site. When fully up and running it should be capable of monitoring a hundred or so pulsars regularly.

Pulsar pulses act like the ticks of very precise clocks spread throughout the Milky Way. By monitoring these clocks one can study effects of gravity, high-density neutron star physics, the composition and structure of the Milky Way and much more besides.

These exciting investigations into fundamental questions of physics will be pursued from the I-LOFAR station, situated in the grounds of Birr Castle, and the performance is expected to improve. I-LOFAR’s sensitivity is best straight up and falls off towards the horizon, and this pulsar only ever gets as high as 45 degrees above the horizon. So the sensitivity in this direction is half the maximum, and for this first observation only one quarter of the available bandwidth was used reducing the sensitivity in half again. This is only the tip of the iceberg!

The observations were obtained by a team including Evan Keane (Square Kilometre Array/Jodrell Bank), Joe McCauley, Peter Gallagher, Pearse Murphy and Brian Coghlan (TCD), Griffin Foster (Oxford/Berkeley/Breakthough), Paul Callanan and Luke Timmons (UCC), and Matt Redman and Nevenoe Guegan (NUIG).

I-LOFAR and REALTA are supported by research infrastructure grants from Science Foundation Ireland. REALTA is owned by UCC and NUIG and hosted at TCD’s Rosse Observatory.

Ireland’s Biggest Telescope Gearing up to Catch the Perseid Meteor Shower

This week the team at I-LOFAR has been excitedly undergoing preparations for the upcoming Perseid Meteor Shower. Saturday night, 12th August 2018, is due to have the highest level of meteor activity with an expected 10 meteors per minute!

What is a Meteor Shower?

Meteors, more commonly known as “shooting stars”, are in fact small pieces of rock that have broken away from asteroids or comets due to collisions or extreme heating caused by their tremendous velocities. The small rocks enter Earth’s atmosphere and the resulting drag or air resistance of the air particles leads to further heating. This heating produces a huge glow which we can observed from the ground. A “shower” of meteors is caused when a comet passes especially close to the Sun & Earth inducing a large amount of heating and break up. In the case of the Perseids, Earth is passing through the dust and debris left behind the comet Swift–Tuttle.

How does LOFAR Detect Meteors?

I-LOFAR is hoping to observe the Perseid Shower using two different methods.

1. The first is called “passive radar”. This uses radio antennae to detect reflections of military/aeronautical radar off the plasma trail of the meteor. I-LOFAR will be trying to observe the reflection from a French radar used to monitor satellite orbits, called GRAVES, at 145 MHz.

2. The second method of meteor detection is by measuring direct emission from plasma in tail below 60 MHz as was done here by the Long Wavelength Array.

I-LOFAR has also teamed up with scientists at Dunsink Observatory, in collaboration with the Nematode network, who are planning on observing the event using two optical cameras with 30×30 degree FOV looking south and southwest, as well as a Yagi all-sky antenna tuned to GRAVE at 145 MHz.

What will we Learn?

From these observations I-LOFAR hopes to to determine the number of meteors per minutes, how fast they were traveling, from where the originated and where they were going in the plane of the sky.

How can I Observe the Perseids?

The Perseids will be most active on the nights of the 11th-12th & 12th-13th August 2018 and can be see with the naked eye. Get as far away from light pollution as you can and simply look up! Count and see if you can get 10 in a minute. And don’t forget to tune back in the coming days to see how the I-LOFAR team got on!

For more information and live updates on progress, keep an eye on the @I_LOFAR, @DunsinkObs and @nemetodemeteor Twitter feeds.

Big Data Processing for I-LOFAR: REALTA

I-LOFAR is a true ‘big data’ project, and as part of the International LOFAR Telescope, is a pathfinder telescope to the future Square Kilometre Array telescope, which will create perhaps the largest dataset in the world (an exabyte per day!).

To date, the data processing capabilities of  I-LOFAR have not  been sufficient to allow the telescope study astronomy objects that vary rapidly. However,  members of the I-LOFAR consortium at UCC and NUIG have recently obtained SFI funding to create a data processing system that can intensively analyse  and rapidly store the data stream as it emerges from the telescope, giving I-LOFAR a new and powerful capability to study the transient radio sky.  The system, called the “REALtime Transient Acquisition Cluster (REALTA)”, builds on the heritage of the ARTEMIS system designed by the Oxford e-Research Centre.

In July 2018, a team from UCC, NUIG, TCD and Oxford/Berkeley team set up 5 Dell-EMC PowerEdge GPU/CPU blades and 300 terabytes of storage. Over the coming months, this will enable us to study a wide range of fascinating astronomy targets such as aurora in planetary atmospheres, pulsars, solar radio bursts, nova explosions, and fast radio bursts.

The I-LOFAR processing cluster may even be used to assist in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), in collaboration with the Breakthrough Listen foundation.

I-LOFAR and REALTA are supported by research infrastructure grants from Science Foundation Ireland. REALTA is owned by UCC and NUIG and hosted at TCD’s Rosse Observatory.

Observing the Sun at the nanosecond scale with the I-LOFAR Transient Buffer Boards

Transient Buffer Boards (TBBs) are a part of I-LOFAR’s data computation hardware that allow signals from the sun, stars and other astrophysical objects to be recorded at one of the fastest time resolutions possible. They can show us how the sun and stars change at the nanosecond scale.

To do this, TBB data must be recorded to cluster of computers so that the large amount of data can be stored. The total amount of data all 12 of I-LOFAR’s TBBs can hold is 384 GB, which is only 5 seconds worth of observations if all 96 antennas are used. Not only does the cluster need to store large volumes of data, it has to write it fast enough so that it doesn’t get lost before more data comes in. The TBB data cluster in our control room in Birr writes data to a fast, 46 TB storage node.

The picture above shows the TBB cluster in the control room. While it may not look pretty, it offers researchers in Trinity College Dublin the chance to observe the fine structure of radio bursts from the sun at the highest time resolution that has ever been done before. This will allow them to solve unanswered questions about energy release and particle acceleration on the sun. The fat silver unit at the top (WN104) is the fast storage node where all the TBB data is stored while the smaller units beneath it will be used in the future to process this data to look for new phenomena in the sun’s atmosphere.

Ready for Space Explorers!

On June 5, 2018 we completed the refurbishment of our new I-LOFAR Education Centre & Control Room at the Rosse Observatory, Birr Castle, Co. Offaly.
The Education Centre will be used to host groups of school children, university students, researchers, and tour groups interested in learning about the fascinating science and engineering of I-LOFAR. The Control Room contains computers to control I-LOFAR remotely and to processes the huge volumes of data that the array generates.
We’ve come a long way from the “Sheep Shed Control Room”!

We’re on the road to LOFAR … come on inside.

Groups or schools wishing to visit I-LOFAR can contact the reception at Birr Castle Gardens & Science Centre.
The refurbishment was carried out by building contracts Bracken & Sons (Offaly), Cooney Architects, consultant engineers Fitzsimons, Doyle & Associates, and project managed by Trinity College Dublin Estates & Facilities.
Funding for the project has been provided by the Rural Economic Development Zone (REDZ), Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, supported by Offaly County Council and the Offaly Local Enterprise Office.

The I-LOFAR Education Centre (June 2018).

TCD’s Joe McCauley and Eoin Carley in the I-LOFAR Control Room (June 2018).

The Mt. Palmer Barn (January 2014). What a mess!

“The Sheep Shed Control Room” (July 2010). The sheep are now long gone!

I-LOFAR used as part of the International LOFAR Telescope for the first time to Observe Flaring Star

The Irish LOFAR telescope at Birr reached a major milestone on March 6, 2018, when is was used for the first time to observe a nearby flare star called “CN Leo” as part of an International LOFAR Telescope (ILT) observing campaign.

The international team, which includes Irish astronomers Stephen Bourke and Aaron Golden, aim to “catch” a stellar flare exploding in the star’s atmosphere, and to use the I-LOFAR and ILT to understand how such flares evolve and how they compare to solar flares.

CN Leo is a small, red dwarf star about 7.9 light years away in the constellation Leo, and is likely to possess a planetary system. In fact, we now know that the vast majority of stars in the galaxy that have planetary systems that could harbour habitable planets orbit red dwarf stars like CN Leo, so a really important question to answer is whether or not such planets could survive the really very powerful stellar flares we see from many of these red dwarfs.

Studying the way in which such stellar flares occur and how they interact with their local environments using I-LOFAR and the ILT offers a new window on this important area of astronomy.

The I-LOFAR observations were taken as part of LOFAR proposal LC9_040 “A search for aurora on nearby flare stars using LOFAR”, and also involved simultaneous observations using the e-MERLIN radiotelescope in the UK, the Liverpool Telescope at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in the Canary Islands, and NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory.

Stephen Bourke is based at the Department of Space, Earth and Environment, Onsala Space Observatory in Sweden, and Aaron Golden is at the School of Maths in NUI Galway, and is a visiting astronomer at the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium.

I-LOFAR is supported by Science Foundation Ireland, the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and many others.

Introduction to Science, Operations and Data Analysis with an International LOFAR Station

School of Physics, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland. 

January 8-10, 2018

Summary

This workshop will introduce researchers to LOFAR single-station science, operations and data analysis. The workshop will cover many aspects of an International LOFAR Station, from the capabilities of the station hardware to the software pipelines and science products that it produces.

Hands-on lab sessions will give attendees an opportunity to gain experience with data from an international LOFAR station. Students, postdocs, and staff are all encouraged to attend.

This workshop is supported by the Institute of Physics in Ireland.

Registration

If you would like to attend, please email John Quinn (UCD Physics). Please note that a registration fee of €50 will be payable at the meeting.

Software

All tutorials will be given using the Python programming language (Python v3.6 and v2.7). We recommend that you run Python using Jupiter and/or Spyder, which can be installed using Anaconda. Further details on how to install these packages can be found here. An excellent introduction to Python for the analysis of astronomical data can be found at Python4Astronomers.

Internet Access

Wifi access will be provided via eduroam. Please ensure that you have registered for eduroam by contacting your IT services at your home institution before arriving in UCD.

Exercises

Schedule

  • Day 1 (Jan 8): LOFAR hardware and observing capabilities

10:00 – 10:30 Arrival and coffee 

10:30 – 10:45 Welcome and workshop goals [Quinn/Gallagher]

10:45 – 11:30 Overview of I-LOFAR [McCauley]

11:30 – 12:15 International LOFAR Station Hardware [McKay]

12:30 – 14:00 Lunch

14:00 – 14:45 Science with an International LOFAR Station [Greissmeier]

14:45 – 15:30 Observing with an International LOFAR Station [Bourke]

15:30 – 16:00 Coffee

16:00 – 16:45 LOFAR Station Transient Search Backends  [Foster]

16:45 – 17:30 Overview of ILT [Zucca]

19:00 Dinner at the RaddissonBlue Stillorgan.

  • Day 2 (Jan 9): Single station data analysis

09:00 – 10:00 Introduction to Single Station Data Analysis [McKay, Griessmeier, McCauley, Carley]

10:00 – 10:30 Distribution of sample data (dynamic spectra, all-sky maps, etc) and software set up 

10:30 – 11:00 Coffee

11:00 – 12:30 Data analysis talks/tutorials

12:30 – 14:00 Lunch

14:00 – 15:30 Data analysis lab

15:30 – 16:00 Coffee

16:00 – 18:00 Data analysis lab

  • Day 3 (Jan 10): Single station data analysis

09:00 – 13:00 Data analysis lab

Workshop Venue

The workshop will be held at University College Dublin (UCD), which is located about 4km south of Dublin city centre.

The meeting venue will be room 2.32 in the School of Physics (Science Centre North, Building 65). Here is a Google map with the meeting venue.

While UCD offers a wifi service without registration, it is quite restricted, and it is strongly recommended that you use eduroam.

Accommodation

There are many other options for accommodation in Dublin so we suggest investigating
using an online service such as hotels.com.

Getting to UCD

From Dublin Airport get the Aircoach route 700 (http://aircoach.ie/timetables/route-700-dublin-airport-leopardstownsandyford). The cost of a ticket is €10 single or €16 return. Pickup points are located at Dublin Airport Terminals 1 & 2. Buses run every 15 minutes and take
about 45 minutes to get to UCD.
The UCD drop-off stop is indicated by the blue coach symbol in grid A9 on the UCD Campus Map linked above, while the pickup point for going to the airport is indicated by the blue coach symbol in grid B7.
Note: this service may also be used to get to the hotels listed above- there are stops outside both the Talbot Hotel and RadissonBlu. For the Mespil hotel get of at Leeson Street Bridge and walk along the canal to the hotel.
From Dublin City Centre, UCD is well served by Dublin Bus with service 39a (http://dublinbus.ie/Your-Journey1/Timetables/All-Timetables/39a-3/) entering campus and services 46a (http://dublinbus.ie/Your-Journey1/Timetables/All-Timetables/46a-21/) and 145 (http://dublinbus.ie/Your-Journey1/Timetables/All-Timetables/145-/) passing UCD campus and continuing on to also pass the RaddisonBluu and Talbot hotels. The fare is €2.85 and only coins (exact fare, no change given) are accepted as cash payment (a LEAP card may also be purchased).
Further information is available from the UCD website.

Honorary Doctorates for World-Leaders in Astronomy

This week, UCD and TCD awarded Honorary Doctorates to two leading individuals in the world of astronomy. Congratulations to both Prof. George Miley, one of the originators of the LOFAR radio telescope concept, and Ms. Naledi Pandor, a key player in the development of the Square Kilometre Array and astronomy in general in South Africa.

 

Naledi Pandor
As Minister of Science & Technology in South Africa (2009-2012, 2014-to date), Ms. Naledi Pandor has been a tireless champion for the cause of science and scientific research. She and her team successfully won a competitive bid for the siting of part of the future Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope in South Africa. This will be a transformative piece of global astronomy infrastructure into the next decade and one of the largest scientific endeavours in history. Ms. Pandor is a powerful and enduring advocate for the importance of education and science in moving Africa forward, empowering its citizens and inspiring its children.

 

George Kildare Miley Sc. D
George Miley is Emeritus Professor of Astronomy at Leiden University. His research area is distant radio galaxies. He has co-authored more than 350 refereed research papers and was involved in several fundamental discoveries. His distinctions include the Shell Oeuvre Prize, a professorship of the Netherlands Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences, an honorary fellowship of the UK Royal Astronomical Society and an asteroid named after him. In 2012 he received a Dutch knighthood for his services to astronomy and society. Miley has championed the use of astronomy as a unique tool for education and development, in particular for very young children and to stimulate international development. In 1997 he initiated the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR), a revolutionary radio telescope, with stations spread over Europe, supporting the development of an all Ireland facility (I-LOFAR) at Birr Castle. Professor Miley was born and educated in Dublin, at Gonzaga College and UCD, and although he has spent most of his working life in The Netherlands, he retains an interest in the development of Irish astronomy and education and has offered practical support to Irish initiatives.

Members of the Dutch and Irish LOFAR teams under the watchful eye of the 3rd Earl of Rosse. Left to right: Prof. Huub Rottgering (Director of Leiden Observatory), Prof. Peter Gallagher (TCD Physics), Prof. George Miley (Leiden Observatory with his Honorary Degree from Trinity), and I-LOFAR PhD students at Trinity, Ciara Maguire and Pearse Murphy.

I-LOFAR Consortium win SFI Award for International Engagement

Orlaigh Quinn (Secretary General of the Department of the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation) and Mark Ferguson (Director General of SFI) presenting Joe McCauley, Peter Gallagher, Tom Ray and Eoin Carley from the I-LOFAR Consortium with the Best International Engagement Award at the SFI Annual Summit 2017.

I-LOFAR Education Centre Progress

The builders are back in Birr! In October 2017 our building contractor begin refurbishing the I-LOFAR Education Centre and Control Room. The Education Centre will provide a space overlooking the I-LOFAR array for team meetings and visiting groups to be hosted. The Control Room is also being refurbished to provide modern office space for our researchers to work in. All building work should be completed by January 2018 and we plan on having a formal opening in Spring 2018.

The Education Centre refurbishment is supported by the Rural Economic Development Zones (REDZ) programme from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and Offaly County Council.