Irish astronomer brings science closer to finding origins of magnetism


Science is closer to understanding how magnetism first arose in the Universe thanks to a DCU astronomer working on a part Irish telescope.

Shane O’Sullivan, using the I-LOFAR telescope – part of the LOFAR network of Europe-wide observation stations based at Birr Castle – has measured incredibly weak, far off intergalactic magnetic fields with greater accuracy than ever before, and reported in the journal MNRAS.

“Scientists want to know, for example, if cosmic magnetism originated just after the Big Bang, or much later when stars or galaxies formed,” says Shane O’Sullivan, an Assistant Professor of Astronomy at DCU.

Up to now, astronomers have used computer simulations to try and predict the strength and origins of cosmic magnetic fields, but this is the first time that the fields have been directly observed with such accuracy.

Astronomers want to understand the origin of magnetism, an energy that is everywhere in the universe producing repulsive or attractive forces.

The challenge is to measure magnetic fields in space that are incredibly weak – about one billion times weaker than an average fridge magnet.

Understanding magnetism’s origins, says Prof O’Sullivan, can provide a better understanding of the Universe and questions like how stars form. There are also down to earth reasons for studying cosmic magnetism.

“Magnetic fields exist everywhere in the Universe and they are crucial for modern technology such as our smartphones, and communication and navigation systems,” says Dr O’Sullivan. “We want to understand how they were first produced, and where they came from,” he says.

The effort put into building I-LOFAR and the software to measure cosmic magnetic fields could, O’Sullivan says, benefit wider society.

“This kind of research can benefit all of us in unpredictable ways,” says O’Sullivan. “Remember, for example, that WIFI was invented by a radio astronomer who was studying exploding mini–Black Holes.”


2023 Research Summer Internship Programme with I-LOFAR

Does spending your Summer conducting research using a world-class radio telescope sound like a dream come true? If so, then the I-LOFAR 2023 Summer internship programme could be for you!

The internship will focus on using the I-LOFAR radio telescope located at Birr Castle Demesne to answer one of humanity’s oldest questions: Is there other life out there?

Breakthrough Listen (BL) is a world-leading, comprehensive program to search for intelligent life in the Universe. Candidates who are successful will get an opportunity to take part in the search for observational technosignature searches using the Breakthrough Listen backend at I-LOFAR. Research activities will take place in person at Birr and / or Dublin, or remotely if agreed beforehand, under the supervision of Prof. Evan Keane (Trinity College Dublin), in collaboration with the team at Berkeley.

The programme will run for approximately 12 weeks from June to August 2023. A stipend of €600 per week will be provided, which is intended to cover all of your expenses during the program including meals and accommodation. Additionally, travel costs to and from the program site will be reimbursed – instructions regarding booking and reimbursement will be provided to accepted students.

To apply, please see additional information and application form here. Applications are open until Friday, February 3rd 2023



Open Position: I-LOFAR Education, Engagement and Data Science Manager


The Education, Engagement, and Data Science Manager (EEDSM) will work with DIAS, STREAM Birr, and TUS outreach teams to continue and expand on the work of The Astronomical Midlands (AstroLands) project at the I-LOFAR Education Centre in Birr, Co. Offaly. This is a specific purpose contract type with expected minimum duration of 1 year. The original AstroLands (funded by SFI Discover between 2019 – 2021) successfully embarked on a regional engagement project that used the astrophysics research activities of I-LOFAR to connect with students, teachers, and members of the public in rural communities in the Midlands that are currently underserved in STEM education.

For a full list of qualifications and duties check the job description on the TUS Midlands website, some highlights are listed below.


Essential qualifications include an honours degree in a relevant field (STEM, Science Communication, Business/Management) and experience in coordinating outreach activities. It is desirable to have experience in science education delivery, and knowledge of Irish STEM research and outreach policy and practices.

Competencies Required

  • Ability to manage concurrent projects, work independently, take initiative, prioritise, and deliver agreed objectives.
  • Excellent communication and interpersonal skills and demonstrable experience of a high level of collaboration and team working, with ability to interact with an array of diverse stakeholders.
  • Well-developed IT, presentation, and event management skills.
  • Good analytical skills, report writing skills, and ability to write for a variety of media.
  • Ability to be responsive and adaptive in line with the nature of the role, including the ability to work flexible hours and travel, as required.


The EEDSM will continue the three initiatives of AstroLands:

  • Space4Exploration: Run public events and tours for visitors at the I-LOFAR Education Centre.
  • Space4Students: Run space camps for students at the Education Centre during school term and school holidays.
  • Space4Teachers: Run STEM CPD workshops at the Education Centre for school teachers.

The EEDSM will recruit and guide university students as “Astronomical Ambassadors” to interact with visitors to Birr and to deliver space camps and teacher workshops.

The EEDSM will further their work through new initiatives in close collaboration with the teams at DIAS, STREAM Birr, and TUS. Engagement with DIAS includes the development of data dive events with charity partners. The EEDSM will assist STREAM Birr in engaging with business audiences in data and space science. The EEDSM will also assist TUS developing graduate STEM programmes at a regional level. 

The EEDSM will be expected to work closely with the relevant Birr Castle staff and maintain regular contact with the Management team at DIAS (Prof. Peter Gallagher and Prof. Caitriona Jackman), STREAM Birr (Caitriona Montgomery), and TUS (Dr. Mark Daly and Caitriona Mordan). The EEDSM is expected to provide the Management team with a short monthly progress report.


Go to the TUS Midlands website for a full Job Description and weblink to apply: click here

Closing date: 22 April 2022

Institute of Physics Award for Joe McCauley

Congratulating to the Technical Lead for I-LOFAR, Mr. Joe McCauley, on being awarded an Institute of Physics Technical Skills Award 2021. Congratulations Joe!

The Technical Skills Awards celebrate the contributions that Technicians make to physics, and recognise employers that demonstrate their commitment and contribution to scientific and engineering apprenticeship schemes.

Short citation

For his outstanding technical leadership associated with the planning, construction and operation of the Irish Low Frequency Array (I-LOFAR) radio telescope at Birr Castle.

Long citation

Mr. Joe McCauley is a Senior Experimental Officer at Trinity College Dublin and Technical Lead for the Irish Low Frequency Array (I-LOFAR; at Birr Castle in Ireland. He has shown exemplary technical leadership in all aspects of the I-LOFAR project.

Mr. McCauley was instrumental in the planning and construction of I-LOFAR. These were challenging technical tasks that involved preparation of planning applications, extensive civil ground works, management of contractors, and ultimately the delivery and installation of the telescope in the summer of 2017. Mr. McCauley was the technical lead on all aspects of these tasks, and was key to the project being delivered on time and within budget.

Mr. McCauley led the setting up of the Realtime Transient Acquisition (REALTA) cluster to process near-realtime data from I-LOFAR. His technical insight and leadership of a small group of graduate students and researchers were without doubt critical to the data processing cluster operating as effectively as it now does. A description of this system has recently been published in a leading international scientific journal, Astronomy & Astrophysics (Murphy, et al., 2021).

Following the switch-on of I-LOFAR, Mr. McCauley took the lead role in the development of Python scripts to control I-LOFAR and archive data from the telescope. The control software is now used extensively by a pool of I-LOFAR chief observers and by numerous guest observers, ranging from undergraduate students through to senior researchers.

Mr. McCauley has also taken the lead role in identifying and monitoring sources of radio frequency interference at I-LOFAR. His technical expertise and understanding of how to operate and evaluate data from I-LOFAR have enabled him to identify and monitor changes in the I-LOFAR radio environment. Indeed, Mr. McCauley was primarily responsible for preparing a submission to the regional development plan on RFI from wind turbines and their impacts on I-LOFAR. As a result of his expertise in this area, he was recently appointed Secretary of the Committee for Radio Astronomy Frequencies (CRAF), an Expert Committee of the European Science Foundation.

Mr. McCauley is extremely generous with his time and is always willing to help students, from undergraduates taking their first steps in radio astronomy to research fellows and staff.

As a result of his critical contributions to the radio astronomy projects at Birr Castle, Mr. McCauley has been co-author on 7 referred papers in leading international journals, including the first-light observations from I-LOFAR in Nature Astronomy.