Levithan projection

Blog 5 – Space Workshops and Moon Landing Commemoration

Thursday 18th and Saturday 20th of July brought Space Workshops to our Education Centre! Four sessions saw over 60 young people aged 7-14 learn about the moon and our place in the solar system. Topics ranged from the size and scale of the planets, to moon phases and crater creation. The workshops were organised to coincide with the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing and were a great success. Workshops are now running every Friday at 2.30pm in the I-LOFAR Education Centre, starting from last Friday 26th of July, which saw even more young people learning about our place in the universe! The next workshop is on Friday 2nd August and is free for visitors in the castle grounds. Registration at the main reception in the courtyard is recommended.

Also on Saturday July 20th was the Birr Castle Moon Landing Projection on the wall of the Leviathan Telescope. With over 250 people in attendance it was an excellent opportunity to give tours of the history of astronomy at the Demesne. Between four tours Áine, Jane and I spoke to over 150 people, comparing 19th Century engineering at the Leviathan with the 21st Century technology of I-LOFAR. Unfortunately overcast skies meant public observations with the Midlands Astronomy Club optical telescopes were not possible, however the rain held off for the barbecue and projection. A musician set the tone for the evening barbecue in the courtyard, while the recently renovated Science Centre was open for attendees. Mary Field’s dark room, thought to be the oldest intact dark room in the world, now contains her ‘hologram’ speaking about her work as a pioneering photographer in the 1800s. Field was the wife of the Third Earl of Rosse, and they worked as a team to develop the science and engineering history that now exists at the castle. The moon landing projection conveyed the true challenge for the engineers and scientists at NASA to get men to the moon in 1969. President Kennedy’s famous we choose to go to the moon speech was shown, along with the launch of the Saturn V rocket, and the moment Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon.


Levithan projection

Projection on the wall of the Leviathan Telescope


space camp

Space Camp – Balloon Planet making!


Keep an eye out for our next blog about the IAU 100 exhibit coming to Birr!

Blog post written by Jeremy Rigney, he can be found @jeremyrigney. Jane Dooley is also on twitter @JaneDooley98

Blog 4 – Armagh Observatory and Planetarium

On Sunday 14th July the I-LOFAR Education team, Áine, Jeremy and I, visited Armagh Observatory and Planetarium to help them set up the International Astronomical Union’s 100th Anniversary Exhibition (IAU100).  This exhibition is a journey through some of the most significant and surprising breakthroughs that shaped astronomy, technology and culture over the last century. The exhibition has been travelling around the world and is now here in Ireland for the next few months, starting with Armagh, until the 31st July. After that it is moving onto us here in Birr from Friday 9th to Friday 16th of August and will be displayed in Johns Hall and the I-LOFAR Education Centre. If you can’t make either of those, don’t worry because it will also be going to Dublin, Cork and Galway, so make sure you check it out! 


In the early hours of Sunday morning, we began or journey to Armagh and got there just as the team at Armagh Observatory and Planetarium (AOP) were beginning set up of the part of the IAU100 exhibit that would be displayed at that venue. Luckily, they had experience with some of the other exhibition pieces and it didn’t take too long for us to get all the parts assembled and in place. The exhibit was really beautiful and informative and I would seriously recommend coming along to one of the venues and taking a look!

When it was all finished we were free to explore the planetarium, which had lots of fun things to do and see. After taking in all the beautiful models of satellites and rockets, and taking photos (playing) with the Astronaut props, we went up to the planetarium dome for a viewing of “Beyond the Blue: A Stargazing Journey”. The show was a beautiful guided tour of the night sky from Ireland during the Summer months, and we were able to lie back in our chairs and take in all the stars! 

The Earth made from 250,000 pieces of Lego

Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin (aka Jeremy, Áine and Jane)

After the movie the director of AOP, Prof. Michael Burton, gave us a tour of their Astropark, built in 1994. They had a scale model of the solar system, and even a scale model of the universe in logarithmic space called the “Hill of Infinity”! There were also many other features, such as a stone circle to see where the sun sets at different times of the year, a human sundial and a human orrery to model the paths of the planets. Then we were told all about the history of Armagh Observatory and shown a handful of the numerous telescopes the Observatory houses.

The Sun- part of the scale model of The Solar System in the Astropark

A stop on the “Hill of Infinity”

The human orrery at Armagh Observatory and Planetarium

Armagh Observatory was founded in 1789 by Richard Robinson, Archbishop of Armagh and the Planetarium was opened in 1968 through the efforts of Director Eric Lindsay. The observatory was the second to be established in Ireland (the first being Dunsink where we visited the week before) and is the oldest scientific institution in Northern Ireland. It houses a number of old telescopes and observing domes, such as the Troughton Equatorial Telescope and the 15 Inch Grubb Refractor. The oldest telescope in the world still in its original position is in Armagh Observatory! The third director of the Observatory, Thomas Romney Robinson, invented the cup anemometer, used to measure wind speed. He remained director for 59 years and which is a world record for an observatory director that stands today. He was succeeded by J.L.E. Dreyer, who had previously been assistant astronomer at Birr Castle and compiled the “New General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars” (or NGC catalogue). It remains to this day the principal catalogue of nebulae and galaxies used by astronomers worldwide. 

After the interesting history lesson and tour we headed into Armagh city and got some well-earned food. When we were as full as possible, we had a look at some of the other locations the IAU100 Exhibition is being displayed in around Armagh and then headed for home! 


Armagh Observatory and Planetarium was an excellent day out with lots of unique things to do and see, which I would highly recommend. We are now very excited here in Birr for the IAU100 Exhibition to be passed onto us. Make sure you come visit us at Johns Hall and the I-LOFAR Education Centre between 9th and 16th of August. Birr Vintage Week and Arts Festival will also be taking place from the 2nd to the 10th of August, so make sure to check it all out!


Blog Post written by Jane Dooley. Jeremy Rigney and Áine Flood can be found at @jeremyrigney and @AineFlood1 respectively.

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