Department signs funding agreement to enable Ireland to join Telescope collaboration
Membership will benefit researchers across a broad area of science and technology [from Astrophysics to ICT]
Minister of State for Training, Skills, Innovation, Research and Development, John Halligan TD, announced that Ireland will join the International LOFAR Telescope collaboration. The Minister was speaking at Trinity College Dublin at the signing of a funding agreement between the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and Trinity College Dublin to enable Ireland to join the collaboration. The agreement was signed on behalf of Trinity College Dublin by the Provost of Trinity College Dublin ,Dr. Patrick Prendergast.
The International LOFAR (LOw Frequency ARray) Telescope is a €150 million network of radio telescopes distributed across Europe. The huge volume of data from all the telescopes is combined using advanced data analytics on a supercomputer in the Netherlands. The network therefore performs like a single, super-telescope of size equivalent to the geographical separation of the constituent telescopes.
The Irish telescope will be located at Birr, Co Offaly adjacent to the historic Leviathan telescope, which was built by the 3rd Earl of Rosse in 1845 and was the largest optical telescope in the world until 1917. The telescope in Birr has been supported with an award of €1.4 million from Science Foundation Ireland and the annual membership fee for LOFAR will be funded by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation.
Joining LOFAR marks another important milestone in the implementation of Innovation 2020, the national strategy for research and innovation. It will support exciting, world-class scientific research and in addition the data intensive nature of radio astronomy will enhance Ireland’s world-leading capability in big data and data analytics. The skills in software and big data that young researchers will acquire from participation in LOFAR are in high demand in business and will open diverse and high quality career opportunities for them.
Minister John Halligan said “I am delighted that Ireland is joining this pioneering research collaboration in radio astronomy. It is very exciting that researchers across Ireland, both North and South, will now be able to participate in international research on fundamental questions about the origin and structure of the universe. Membership of LOFAR will also increase the engagement of young people with science and inspire our future researcher leaders.”
Dr Prendergast said “Joining the International LOFAR Telescope collaboration will open many new research and funding opportunities for Irish researchers and students in Europe and further afield. Indeed, one of the I-LOFAR team, Tom Ray, a Professor at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies and an Adjunct Professor of Astronomy at Trinity, has recently won a prestigious €2 million Advanced Grant from the European Research Council.”
Professor Gallagher, Head of the I-LOFAR Collaboration and Associate Dean of Research at Trinity, said “This is the first time that a research grade radio telescope has been built in Ireland. I-LOFAR will enable Irish researchers to study solar activity and exploding stars, search for new planets, and explore the distant universe in a completely new way. And this will be achieved by developing cutting-edge data analytics techniques on supercomputers here in Ireland and the Netherlands. I-LOFAR really will be a test-bed for big data and data analytics.”
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NOTE TO EDITORS
LOFAR (LOw Frequency ARray) is an international network of state-of-the-art telescopes used to observe the Universe in unprecedented detail at low radio frequencies. LOFAR is one of the largest astrophysics projects in Europe, consisting of 11 international stations spread across Germany, Poland, France, UK, and Sweden, with additional stations and a central hub in The Netherlands, operated by the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON). The network uses state-of-the-art data processing and storage systems as well as sophisticated computing techniques to combine the entire network into a telescope with the effective size of the European continent.
I-LOFAR will be the Irish addition to this network and the 12th international station to be built in Europe. It will allow Irish astrophysical research to be integrated into one of the most sophisticated telescopes on the planet. The location of this Irish station will be in the centre of the country on the grounds of Birr Castle, Co. Offaly.
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 & Planetarium.
This facility will allow Irish researchers and students access to a facility involved in some of the most ground-breaking and advanced research projects in modern astronomy, including projects in big-bang cosmology, deep extragalactic surveys, cosmic magnetism, cosmic rays, solar physics and space weather.
Further information on I-LOFAR and its research programme is available at lofar.ie
Looking back across what resembles a mini Sahara desert atop a plinth, speckled with little coloured rods that wouldn’t look out of place in a Willy Wonka wonderland, we are struck by the sudden emergence of the silhouette of what will soon be our LOFAR station.
Last week saw the outset of the station layout in Birr, Ireland. The efforts were led by our surveyor from Astron, Edwin Busch and our very own Joe McCauley. We also had two willing students on-site, Aoife Ryan and Hannah Currivan. The mission, should they decide to accept it, was to place over 800 50cm plastic rods into the ground. Easy you might say? Far from it!
There were three different coloured rods for both the HBA and LBA fields. Each colour denoted a different function (cable exit, cable entry, trench position etc.). Some of the rods even had a specific number to indicate the number on HBA tile that would soon replace it. Let the games begin!
Edwin had the coordinates and he, along with his GPS range pole, directed us to each of our 800 positions throughout the two fields. Each rod had to be placed with centimetre accuracy. It became apparent all too quickly that the mission to “place” each rod in the ground was going to be the challenge of all challenges. Unfortunately our lovely mound of dirt on which the state of the art LOFAR station is to be built is predominantly small rocks, stone and compact dirt as opposed to the lovely sandy soils of the Netherlands where this method was perfected. Cue the power drill!! Hauling around a generator we drilled each of the holes in the ground, “placed” the correct rod and hammered it securely into the ground…800 times.
It was a tough four days, of blisters, hard hats and suncream, but it was so very worth it!! With the markers now in place we can look forward to the next LOFAR chapters full of trenching, cable laying and antenna building this summer in Birr.
At a presentation at the French Ambassador’s Residence in Dublin, Professor Peter Gallagher from the School of Physics was invested as a Chevalier des Palmes Académiques/Knight of the Order of Academic Palms.
Originally a decoration founded by Emperor Napoléon in 1808 to honour eminent members of the University of Paris, the Chevalier des Palmes Académiques is a national order of merit of France for distinguished academics and figures in the world of culture and education. The Chevalier award recognizes Professor Teeling’s and Professor Gallagher’s contributions to scientific research here and around the world.
Peter is a Professor in Physics and Associate Dean of Research at Trinity College Dublin, where he runs a large research group focusing on understanding solar activity and its effects on the Earth. He was recently appointed as an advisor to the Director of Science at the European Space Agency’s Headquarters in Paris, and is currently building Ireland’s first research-grade radio telescope at Birr Castle Demesne in Co. Offaly, supported by Science Foundation Ireland.
Peter shared the honour with his wife, Professor Emma Teeling who was also invested as a Chevalier des Palmes Académiques/Knight of the Order of Academic Palms at the same event. Emma is a Professor in Zoology and a member of the Governing Authority at University College Dublin. Emma holds a prestigious European Research Council grant for her research using bats as a model to uncover the biological basis of healthy ageing. Much of her team’s field-work is based in Brittany, France in collaboration with the conservation organisation Bretagne Vivante. Professor Teeling is a member of the Royal Irish Academy and on the board of the Irish Research Council.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”