Welcome back to the blog!

This week we have two special guests, Aoife Brennan and Charlie Giese, our fellow I-LOFAR interns but they are working on a different project to Nathan and I.

So first of all, tell us a bit about yourselves.

Aoife: I’m currently going into the final year of my degree in Astrophysics at the National University of Ireland, Galway. This summer, I’m working with I-LOFAR and the Breakthrough Listen team in UC Berkeley to set up the newly installed Breakthrough Listen (BL) back-end at Birr.

Charlie: I’m currently studying Physics and Astrophysics at Trinity College Dublin, going into my final year. This summer I’ve been doing an internship with I-LOFAR and the Breakthrough Listen initiative.

Who are you working with during your summer internship with I-LOFAR?

Aoife: Our primary mentor for this internship is Dr. Evan Keane, who is currently working at the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics in Manchester. We’ve also been lucky to work with several people in the I-LOFAR team and members of the Breakthrough Listen Initiative, which is an initiative aimed at SETI, the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence.

Inside the Control Unit at I-LOFAR in Birr where the data Aoife and Charlie are working on comes through

What work is your internship focused on?

Charlie: This internship has been primarily focused on learning the ins and outs of Radio Astronomy; pulsars (small, dense, rapidly rotating stars) and Fast Radio Bursts (FRB; a plot of one is included below) and the like, as well as getting some software called turboSETI up and running on the computers in Birr! This software is used for searching radio data for signs of ET, and this is the first time that, through Breakthrough Listen, a systematic search of the skies is being carried out. We soon hope to examine a long track of data from TESS targets using turboSETI, which will be very exciting.

So day to day what kind of things are you doing?

Aoife: Most of the day is spent working on my code, currently I’m working on a script to perform coherent de-dispersion on data that contains giant pulses from the Crab Nebula. The reason we have to ‘de-disperse’ data is because as radio waves travel through space to get to us, they interact with the gas between their source and Earth. This causes the signal to become ‘delayed’. This is a frequency dependent phenomenon and so to put the data back in the right order, we de-disperse. We also participate in activities with the Breakthrough Listen interns, which includes things like weekly lectures and GNUradio (a type of software) tutorials. 

Charlie: My day to day is pretty standard, I spend a lot of time on my computer where I log onto the machines in Birr remotely. Throughout the internship I’ve done a range of different ‘projects’ which generally involved looking at data taken from the I-LOFAR telescope and searching it for pulsars or FRBs. As we’re coming towards the end of the internship I’m now working on getting turboSETI at I-LOFAR. There are also some meetings I have to attend, which are done over Zoom, and are generally held in the evenings because of the time difference between California, where BL is based, and Ireland. 

Plot of a Fast Radio Burst (FRB)

Is there anything interesting you’ve learned from your work so far, that you’d like to share with our audience? 

Aoife: I’ve really enjoyed learning more about the work that goes into processing radio data. It’s been really interesting to use actual data containing fast radio bursts and pulsars, which themselves are wondrous astronomical sources. I’m really excited to learn how to use turboSETI to search for extraterrestrial sources, which will hopefully be happening very soon.

Charlie: Something I learned about which I found interesting is fast radio bursts. These are bursts of radio emission which are estimated to occur up to 10,000 times a day across our skies. I find them fascinating because what causes them is still broadly unknown, there are many theories but none have been confirmed yet.

And lastly, do you think anything you learned/experienced as part of the internship will be helpful to you with your degree and/or further work/studies? 

Aoife: I originally applied for this internship as I wish to pursue a masters after my degree in observational astronomy, I specifically wanted to work with I-LOFAR as many of my favourite astronomical sources are widely observed in radio astronomy. Through this internship I’ve also become very excited about SETI, and the work of Breakthrough Listen. Because of this internship I’ve found another field that I would love to pursue a career in.

Charlie: This internship has been super helpful in helping me develop my skills; both as an astronomer and as a data scientist. With my last year of college coming up it has also made my choice of final year project clearer, and has introduced me to SETI, a field of Astronomy I didn’t really know even existed. It’s been a great experience and will hopefully prove invaluable as I progress in my studies. 

We hope you enjoyed hearing about some other exciting work going on and make sure to tune back in next week!

Blog post written by Amy Clancy