Trucking for Science – from the Netherlands with LOFAR

Our extra-terrestrial trucker, Dr Ryan Milligan, made the first collections of parts for the Irish LOFAR telescope from the Netherlands this week. Here he tells us about his astronomical haul from the Netherlands to Birr, Co. Offaly in the Irish Midlands.

When else would a PhD in astrophysics and a truck driving licence be of use? When you are collecting a huge radio telescope of course! Well, this week I-LOFAR team member and truck driver, Dr. Ryan Milligan, collected the first shipment of parts for the Irish LOFAR station from ASTRON in the Netherlands.

Ireland will soon have it’s very own LOFAR radio telescope, which will connect Irish astronomers to the huge International LOFAR Telescope. The international telescope is made up of a thousands of antennas spread across Europe and is being used by Europe’s leading scientists to study the early universe, exploding stars, the Sun and to search for new planets. With the new Irish station, LOFAR will stretch nearly 2,000 km from Ireland to Poland.

And as the luck of us Irish would have it, we have our very own truck-driving astrophysicist, Dr. Ryan Milligan. Ryan has a PhD in astrophysics from Queen’s University Belfast, and has spent most of his career working with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

But before this, Ryan was a truck driver, hauling all kinds of loads for the family fish business in Co. Down. “I still love driving trucks now and again”, according to Ryan. “There’s nothing more relaxing than few days on the road in a Scania with AC/DC at full volume”.

@ryanomilligan: We’re loaded up! Bit of a change of plans but we’re on the road. Now to make it to Zeebrugge in time for the boat back to Dublin …

Ryan was actually Professor Peter Gallagher’s first PhD student back in his NASA days. “I was building a radio telescope and we needed a truck driver, so no better man than Ryan”, said Peter, who is leading the Irish LOFAR station build.

This week is a huge week for the I-LOFAR consortium, as we look forward to receiving the first delivery of parts for the Irish LOFAR station. With the help of our transport partners, Foremost Freight and Noel Howley Logistics, let’s hope all arrives in ship-shape at Birr Castle on Friday.

You can follow the rest of Ryan’s astronomical haul at @ryanomilligan and @i_lofar.

@ryanomilligan: Today was a welcome respite after the insanity of yesterday during the @I_LOFAR haul. Extended update now available:

RTE News website

A member of the I-LOFAR consortium has won €2 million in funding from the European Research Council to study the birth of stars and planets.

Professor Tom Ray from the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies (DIAS) won the prestigious Advanced Grant against stiff opposition from all over Europe.

The study will involve furthering Prof’s work in the area of exploring what the Solar System would have looked like 5 billion years ago when it began to form.

The proposal, named “Ejection Accretion Structures in Young Stellar Objects” or EASY will use cutting edge observational instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope, the European low frequency radio telescope LOFAR and the facilities of the European Southern Observatory, to improve our understanding of the complex processes involved.

This money will also be used to pay seven researchers at DIAS.

The organisation said the win was a vindication of its vision of the pursuit of excellence and curiosity-driven research.

“These awards are among the most highly sought after in Europe and are extremely difficult to win,” said Graeme Horley, SFI Programme Manager and ERC National Contact Point.

This article was first published on the RTE News website.



Gravitational Waves Detected from Black Hole Merger

Today was a momentous day for physicists, who have finally detected gravitational waves and verified Einstein’s general theory of relativity. The evidence is all in the figure below which shows signals of gravitational waves detected by the two LIGO Observatories. The signals came from two merging black holes 1.3 billion light-years away. The top two plots show data received at each detector, along with waveforms predicted by general relativity. The LIGO data match the predictions very closely. The final plot compares data from both facilities, confirming the detection.
Theorist predict that a mass equivalent to three solar masses was converted to gravitational waves in a fraction of a second — 50 times the power of the entire Universe! A new era of astronomy opens! Further information can be found at the Science Daily Website.
In Ireland, a consortium of universities are now building a radio telescope called LOFAR at Birr Castle which will play a vital role in testing Einstein’s theories of gravity using observations of black holes and the large-scale structure of the Universe.

Trinity Solar Physics Feature on Cover of Leading International Journal

Research from the School of Physics has been featured on the front cover of a leading European scientific journal, Astronomy & Astrophysics. Trinity graduate student Ms. Diana Morosan and her supervisor Prof. Peter Gallagher used observations of the Sun from the International Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) to study very short pulses of radio waves from the solar atmosphere. These radio bursts have been imaged for the first time by LOFAR and the results of their study have been published in a paper which featured in the August edition of Astronomy & Astrophysics. These bursts are less than 1 second long which made it challenging for previous radio telescopes to determine their location. These observations show the true potential of LOFAR in advancing the study of radio emission coming from the Sun.

I-LOFAR in Government’s Midlands Action Plan for Jobs

On June 29, 2015 the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Richard Bruton, announced the “Action Plan for Jobs: Midland Region 2015-2017“. We were delighted that I-LOFAR has been included in the plan in a prominent way. This is a significant step forward for the project, thanks to the efforts of Denis Duggan (Enterprise Ireland). 

The following is from the Action Plan. 

At the time of finalisation of this Action Plan, there were a number of emerging projects with potential for job creation and enterprise opportunity in the region in the future. These project require further development by the promoters and are medium-term in timescale. Progress on these projects will be kept under review over the lifetime of the Action Plan.

The establishment of a next-generation radio telescope in Birr was identified in consultations with stakeholders as holding potential for the creation of a research and data analytics hub in the Midlands.

LOFAR (Low Frequency Array) is a next-generation radio telescope that is currently being deployed across Europe, with stations already operating in the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, and the UK at an investment of €150 million.

I-LOFAR refers to a proposal by a consortium of Irish universities and Research Institutes (which includes Athlone Institute of Technology and is led by Trinity College Dublin) to build and operate an Irish LOFAR radio telescope at Birr Castle which will connect Ireland into the International LOFAR telescope and sensor network.

Birr Castle Demense & Gardens is the site of preference of the Irish consortium, as Birr has little radio interference, making it ideal for radio astronomy. Birr Castle Demense & Gardens has an existing Science Visitor Centre and is internationally recognized for its tradition in astronomy. The plan is to facilitate the development of the iLOFAR on a 6 acre site in the Demesne & Gardens.

The local availability of a fibre network (MAN, or Metropolitan Area Network) makes data-transport at high rates suitable for radio astronomy a possibility. I-LOFAR will use approximately 30% of a 10 Gbps fibre connection to Birr. Internet providers will be able to use the remainder to provide high-speed broadband to users on the Birr MAN and companies at the Birr Technology Centre, for example. The data acquired by the telescope will generate daily a volume of data on par to Ireland’s total daily internet traffic. The facility has the potential to provide the data resources for data analysis on a scale not currently possible in Ireland.

From an enterprise and jobs perspective, locating this infrastructure in the Midlands would:

  • Act as a magnet to attract data analytic companies and create a cluster of data start-ups in the region and the Midlands Innovation and Research Centre in AIT and enhance the capabilities of the research institutes based at AIT, including the Software Research Institute.
  • Attract additional tourists into the Midland Region with the development of an I-LOFAR visitor centre for tourists and students, which will overlook the radio telescope.
  • Create better links between the Midland Region and multinationals.
  • Provide a platform for educational outreach STEM subjects for students of all ages.
  • Attract further R&D activities and funding (e.g., from Horizon 2020) to the Midland Region. 

Irish Astronomer Searching for Exoplanets using LOFAR

An international team of scientists lead by Irish astronomer Dr. Eamon O’Gorman have been awarded 32 hours of observing time with the international LOFAR array to search for radio waves from planets orbiting other stars. It is believed that billions of these so-called ‘exoplanets’ exist in our galaxy alone, and Dr O’Gorman is confident that some of them can be detected at radio wavelengths with LOFAR.

Dr O’Gorman said, “In our own solar system, Jupiter can outshine the Sun at certain radio wavelengths. We predict that some massive exoplanets should be detectable with LOFAR thanks to its groundbreaking and unparalleled sensitivity. Detecting exoplanets at radio wavelengths would not only open the door to a whole new method of their detection, but would also allow us to study their magnetic fields, composition, and how fast they rotate.”

Dr O’Gorman also explained that the proposed I-LOFAR telescope at Birr castle would be revolutionary for both the Irish astrophysics community and the entire LOFAR member states across Europe. “I-LOFAR will increase the overall sensitivity of the array and will enable us to see finer details. It will certainly improve our chances of finding these faint radio signals from other worlds. It is exciting to think that we are now close to having the capabilities of studying exoplanets from Ireland.”

Sunspotter Workshops for the Midlands Science Festival

Several Sunspotter workshops took place in a number of Midlands schools this week as part of the Midlands Science Festival..

Aine Flood, Pietro Zucca and Peter Gallagher of the Citizen Science Alliance at Trinity College explained……

‘Our job at the Solar and Space Weather Group in Trinity is to use data from ESA and NASA satellites to understand the Sun and how it effects us here on Earth. We also run the Rosse Solar-Terrestrial Observatory in Birr (, which is equipped with antennas and other instrument to continuously monitor solar activity and its impacts on the Earth’s magnetic field. We are particularly interested in forecasting solar flares and solar mass ejections, which can produce the northern and southern lights and cause problems in telecommunication and GPS systems.’ Peter Gallagher, Head of the Solar and Space Weather Group

Aine, what is the Citizen Science Alliance?

The Citizen Science Alliance is a collection of many scientists, software developers and educators from all over the world who work together on internet based projects to improve their research as well as other peoples understanding of both the science and how scientific work is done. They invite everyone to become a citizen scientist by collaborating with them online and offering their time and skills to help sort through large collections of data.

Why is public engagement important for this project to succeed?

The public are our collaborators for this project and all the others in the Zooniverse collection. Without the public offering their time and energy to help classify the sunspots we wouldn’t have a project! It’s really important for us to engage with the public and tell them how much they are helping real scientific research by participating in SunSpotter. This is an Irish based project, thought up and created by solar physics researchers in Trinity College Dublin. Our team uses the results to help forecast solar weather which affects a lot of things here on Earth such as radio communications, contact with orbiting satellites, and of course any astronauts in space need to know if a solar storm is about to strike.

What can we do to ensure we encourage the next generation consider science as a career?

The more scientists that talk to young people about their work, what they do and why they do it, the clearer it is that science is a fascinating and important part of all our lives. Some people, especially children are always asking questions, trying to figure out how things work and wondering why everything happens as it does. Science strives to answer these questions. Our understanding of the world around us, and indeed the whole universe, has improved greatly due to answers we have found through scientific research and observation. But one of the best things about science is that often these answers lead to even more questions. We don’t know everything, there’s still lots to discover!

Are you looking forward to being involved in the Midlands Science Week and why are events like this important for Science promotion?

Yes, we are really looking forward to it! We are delighted to be involved with the team at the Midlands Science Festival. Events like this encourage people to get more involved with spreading science. Whether you want to have a chat about it at an evening talk or get ‘hands on’ and learn something new at a workshop there’s something for all ages and interests. These events also give scientists an opportunity and platform to engage with an interested public and tell them why their research matters. This clear dialogue is essential for better understanding and appreciation of science.

If you wish to learn more please see

Radio Bursts from the Sun Imaged using LOFAR

The Solar Physics Group at TCD are excited to report that they have made radio images of bursts of radio waves from the Sun using LOFAR. The Sun is far from a quiet star and from time to time throws out huge explosions of hot gas into space. These explosions can accelerate electrons to fractions of the speed of light and it is these tiny electrons that emit radio waves on their way though interplanetary space. These radio waves can be detected by radio telescopes as bursts of radiation.


Now, a team at TCD lead by Prof. Peter Gallagher, have managed to image these bursts for the first time using the international Low Frequency Array (LOFAR). These bursts were found to originate even at times of low solar activity at other wavelengths.

“The Sun is a ever-changing and we have used LOFAR to look for the exact places on the Sun where electrons are accelerated by tracking radio waves coming from the Sun”, according to TCD graduate student, Diana Morosan, who was first author on a recent paper on this topic in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. “These results are key to understanding how electrons can be accelerated in the solar atmosphere and on other stars in the Universe.”

The article can be read here.

Big Day For Birr With Launch Of Solar Observatory

AN IMPORTANT day in the history of Birr Castle took place on Saturday afternoon when a new space observatory was officially launched. This new observatory could be part of something very exciting indeed because it is possible that one day it could detect the existence of extra-terrestrial life. If the project comes to fruition it will also be part of a system which will expand our knowledge of the early evolution of the universe.

The new Observatory is called the Rosse Solar-Terrestrial Observatory and it is located in former farmsheds and fields in the Mount Palmer section of the Demesne. A number of antennae are already in place in the Mount Palmer area, the farm sheds have been considerably renovated, and €300,000 has been raised for the project. Fundraising efforts are currently underway to raise another €1.2 million for the scheme, and the Castle and Trinity College Dublin are appealing to the business people of Birr and Offaly to financially support this exciting project.
Businessmen Dermot Desmond and Denis O’Brien have both contributed €50,000 each to I-LOFAR. Birr businessman Stevie Grant has also contributed a significant amount. The Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation is currently considering whether it will give funding to I-LOFAR and is due to make an announcement on the matter during July.
Speaking during Saturday’s launch Brendan Parsons Lord Rosse said his ancestors, the 3rd and 4th Earls, would have been very excited and proud to see this new development. He said that in terms of ambition and breaking new ground, this project was on a parallel with the giant telescope constructed in the demesne in the 1840s. He pointed out that the Third Earl studied in Trinity College Dublin. He said the renovated farmsheds were built during the 5th Earl’s time, who brought over an agricultural adviser from Denmark. ‘He was more interested in agriculture than in science.’ He said the I-LOFAR project is a dynamic and exciting scheme.
Professor Peter Gallagher, School of Physics, Trinity College, recalled that he first visited the farmsheds four years ago and they were full of sheep. Now the sheep have been moved elsewhere and have been replaced by a building devoted to Astrophysics. He commented that the Rosse Solar-Terrestrial Observatory is already a working observatory. He said the antennae which are already in situ and working are able to pick up radio waves being emitted by the sun. Clouds are not a barrier to their ability to function.
Professor Gallagher added that the antennae are also able to monitor the Earth’s ionosphere which can be helpful in forecasting disruptions in communication systems. He pointed out that one of the Birr antennae detected a major solar burst and this fact was reported in ‘Nature Physics’, a leading Science magazine.
‘The ambition is to convert the farmsheds into a lecture area suitable for visiting students.’ The Professor added that while raising €1.2 million may seem like a large sum of money, in the context of science projects it is not a large sum. He praised Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy who, he said, has been very supportive of I-LOFAR, including travelling with an I-LOFAR, fund-seeking delegation to the EU Parliament earlier on in the year.
I-LOFAR is the name for the Irish version of this international project with the ‘I’ standing for ‘Irish’ and ‘LOFAR’ standing for ‘Low Frequency Array.’
‘Birr’s tradition and radio-quiet environment make it an ideal location for being part of what is, when all the radio telescopes throughout Europe are combined as one, the largest low frequency radio telescope in the world,’ said the Professor. ‘I-LOFAR will not only attract additional visitors to Birr, but will contribute to Ireland emerging as a key player in international research and development.’
I-LOFAR will be part of an international network of radio telescopes which are referred to as LOFAR. LOFAR is currently up and running on a Europe-wide basis with about 60 radio telescopes throughout the continent including Sweden, France, Britain, Germany and Holland (there are 42 radio telescopes in Holland). €150 million in funding has been invested in the project and this funding has come from National Science Agencies and the European Regional Development Fund. The aim of LOFAR’s work includes providing new views of exploding stars, and detecting previously unknown planets. Each radio telescope consists of multiple antennae. LOFAR will enable  the study of Black Holes (which were predicted by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity).
‘Lord and Lady Rosse have been nothing short of magnificent since we first came to Birr,’ remarked Professor Gallagher. ‘On every visit they have been very hospitable to us.’ He complimented George Vaugh for helping renovate the farmsheds. ‘George did a great deal of work including bringing gravel to the area, as well as electricity. Our name for the sheds now is the control room. This is a good start and I think we have a bright future.’
Dr Patrick Prendergast, the Provost of Trinity College, said he was delighted to be present. He said the connection between Trinity College and the Parsons family goes back hundreds of years. It was a connection which was devoted to the love and pursuit of knowledge. It was a connection which was dedicated to science and which also possessed a strong sense of public service.
He commented that as a student in Trinity in the 1770s Sir Lawrence Parsons, the second Earl, was an auditor in the university. He represented Dublin University in the Irish House of Commons. ‘We are very proud of him in Trinity College. As an MP he spoke strongly for independence and integrity. He was praised by Wolfe Tone who said he was one of the few honest men in the Irish House of Commons.
‘The Third Earl was a truly remarkable man who in 1845 constructed the Hubble telescope of its time, which is an extraordinary piece of scientific heritage for Ireland. Using his telescope the Third Earl drew the very first images of the Milky Way. He possessed the same qualities of integrity and decency as his father. He was a vocal critic of the government in London during the famine and he told them the situation was desperate. He was an important voice of compassion and economic sense. In 1862 he was made a chancellor of Trinity.’
The Provost said the Third Earl handed on his passions and enthusiasms to his children, and the Fourth Earl’s brother, Algernon, invented the steam turbine.
He said the current Earl, the 7th Earl, has continued the great family tradition of a love and pursuit of knowledge. He said the 7th Earl was recently elected an honorary member of Trinity College.
‘Today is another milestone in the Parsons family’s long commitment to science. I want to thank them for their marvellous generosity. To engage in astrophysics in a place which is crucial in the history of astrophysics is something special.’
Lord Rosse said that when the giant telescope was officially opened in 1845 a local clergyman walked up and down the inside of the barrel of the telescope blessing it as he went. He asked two local clergymen, Archdeacon Wayne Carney and Fr Tony Cahir, to bless I-LOFAR in Birr using water taken from St Brendan’s Well in the demesne.
Fr Cahir quoted Pope Francis who recently, during an astronomers’ convention, pointed out that, ‘It is only right that men and women everywhere should have access to research and scientific training. The hope that one day all people will be able to enjoy the benefits of science is one which spurs all of us on, scientists in particular. Only a fraction of the global population has access to such knowledge, which opens the heart and the mind to the great questions which human beings have always asked: Where do we come from? Where are we going? The search for an answer to these questions can lead us to an encounter with the Creator, the loving Father, for in him we live and move and have our being.’
Archdeacon Carney quoted from the Book of Sirach: ‘All creation obeys His will. He declares what is past and what will be. Not a thought escapes Him. Nothing can be added to him, nothing taken away. Who could ever grow tired of gazing at His glory?’
If you would like to make a donation to the I-LOFAR project please contact Professor Gallagher at (087) 6568975.

Trinity’s New Observatory in Birr to Illuminate the Sun-Earth Connection

The Rosse Solar-Terrestrial Observatory, which will be opened on Saturday, June 28th, will be used to help better understand solar phenomena affecting everyday life on Earth

Details: 3 pm, Saturday, June 28th, 2014 at Birr Castle Demesne, Birr, Co. Offaly (attending press/photographers are advised to arrive by 2:45 pm to ascend the observatory).

Dublin, June 27th, 2014 – The Rosse Solar-Terrestrial Observatory – a Trinity College Dublin School of Physics teaching and research facility devoted to studying the Sun and its effects on Earth – will be officially opened with a ceremony at Birr Castle Demesne, Co. Offaly, on Saturday June 28th.

The Sun is an enormous ball of hot gas, which keeps our planet hot enough for life to flourish. From time to time though, huge clouds of hot solar gas can be flung into space at hundreds of thousands of kilometres an hour. These ‘solar storms’ can endanger astronauts and cause problems for telecommunications and navigation systems here on Earth.

Scientists will use the observatory and its set of scientific instruments to work out when solar storms erupt from the Sun and when they hit the Earth’s upper atmosphere and magnetic field. Scientists at Trinity have developed the observatory at Birr Castle in the midlands of Ireland to monitor the effervescent Sun’s nearly unpredictable outbursts.

Director of the Rosse Solar-Terrestrial Observatory and Associate Professor in Physics at Trinity, Peter Gallagher, said: “We are delighted to reignite scientific research at Birr and to honour one of Ireland’s greatest innovators of the 1800s, the 3rd Earl of Rosse, by naming the observatory for him.”

Trinity has established links with Birr that stretch back over a century and a half. Indeed, the 3rd Earl was Chancellor in 1862–1867, the 4th Earl was Chancellor in 1885–1908 and the 6th Earl was Pro-Chancellor in 1949–1979. The observatory will enable researchers to study the Sun and its effects on the Earth like no other facility in Ireland. A set of antennae will constantly monitor solar activity, while another antenna will monitor solar effects on a layer of the Earth’s upper atmosphere called the ‘ionosphere’. Ionospheric disturbances can cause drop-outs in high-frequency communications with aircraft. An additional instrument, called a magnetometer, which is operated jointly with the Geophysics Section of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, will continuously monitor disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field. These ‘geomagnetic storms’ can cause deflections in compasses and surges in electricity power grids.

 Professor Gallagher added: “A facility like this will also enable Irish students to gain valuable hands on skills in programming, electronics, antennas, and cutting-edge scientific research at a working observatory. Physics graduates are in great demand in high-tech companies and end up working in a wide range of sectors including IT, finance, engineering, education, which are all areas of particular importance to the development of the smart economy in Ireland.”