New world-leading radio telescope will "put Birr on the map"

Thursday, 3 August 2017

New world-leading radio telescope will "put Birr on the map" thumbnailReme Cermeulem, Director of International I-LOFAR telescope, points the way of the radio waves when he visited Birr Castle on Thursday last for the switching on of the new I-LOFAR (Low Frequency Array) telescope

A NEW world-leading Radio Telescope, which will "put Birr on the map", was officially launched last week by Minister John Halligan.

The Minister of State for Training, Skills, Innovation, Research and Development was at Birr Castle to switch on I-LOFAR telescope, part of the largest radio telescope in the world.

The International LOFAR (LOw Frequency ARray) Telescope is a €150 million network of radio telescopes distributed across Europe. 

Minister Halligan told the gathering that Irish Government and agency investment in research has propelled Ireland to the forefront of radio astronomy.

 He said I-LOFAR, is located near 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.

"I am delighted to turn the switch on for I-LOFAR," the Minister said, "and link Ireland with our European partners in this pioneering research collaboration in astronomy. Membership of LOFAR affords a unique opportunity for research and engagement to young people across the country with astronomy and science in general. As Minister it is my distinct pleasure to be here to celebrate the achievement of such a wide section of the Irish scientific community."

He said 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."

Professor Peter Gallagher from Trinity College Dublin has devoted much time to the creation of the new telescope in Birr Castle. "This is a magnificent day for Irish science," he remarked. "You have no idea how happy I am after a decade of working at this project. Ireland should be very proud of what this achievement means. The new telescope is part of a grand, pan-European project which is a leap forward into the unknown to discover the unknown.

"I-LOFAR is a strange, crazy telescope which uses 3,000 antennas in this large Birr Castle field alone which are picking up radio waves at the very edges of the universe. It is part of a giant radio telescope comprising 50 telescopes based all around Europe. The work of this giant pan-European telescope includes investigating and understanding the origins of the universe, and maybe that work alone will achieve a Nobel Prize."

 He said the telescope and investment in European astronomy makes sound financial sense. "For every one Euro we put into the European Space Agency we get back six Euros in exchange." He also spoke of the positivity of Horizon 2020, which has a budget of €80 billion over seven years and will raise the level of excellence in Europe's science base.

The professor pointed out that locally the support "has been huge". He said local children had raised several hundred Euros for the project. He said Birr Chamber of Commerce, local politicians and local businessmen had all been very supportive.

"It is important," he commented, "to invest in the weird, the crazy, in the cutting edge. This telescope is cutting edge engineering. It is connecting a field in Offaly with a super computer in the Netherlands."

The Birr telescope will generate a huge amount of data and this data will be analysed by computers located in converted farmsheds just a stone's throw from the telescope. Professor Gallagher added that projects like this mean we can keep highly qualified people in Ireland, which is always a big plus. He said it's planned to convert the farmsheds into an education centre and open this by Christmas. School tours will be brought here, as well as tourists and adult groups. It's possible that the project will lead to the creation of 20 new jobs who will be dedicated to carrying out "cutting edge research".

He praised the 20 undergraduates who for the last few months lived in Birr and constructed the telescope. "They are a wonderful group of people who worked very hard in all weathers." He also praised Joe McCauley who oversaw the project with the Professor. "We owe Joe a great debt. He guided everyone skillfully during the telescope's building.

 "The Irish LOFAR radio telescope opens up a new era of astronomical research in Ireland and connects us to the leading network of radio telescopes in Europe. It will be used to study the early Universe, detect exploding stars, search for new planets and understand the effects of the Sun on the Earth. The huge volumes of data that the radio telescope will produce will requires us to develop new software and data analytics techniques to process and understand the data. I-LOFAR really is a test-bed for big data in Ireland."

Minister Halligan said LOFAR is a network of state-of-the-art telescopes used to observe the Universe "in unprecedented detail at low radio frequencies." He said it consists of a number of 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," he continued, "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 allow Irish astrophysical research to be integrated into one of the most sophisticated telescopes on the planet. It 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."

 The Minister praised Lord and Lady Rosse for their vision and willingness to get involved in this exciting project. He said they are both very proud of their family's scientific history and Lord Rosse had told the Minister some of this rich history during his visit. 

Minister Halligan pointed out that many people might not realise how popular astronomy is in Ireland. He pointed out that Astronomy Ireland is the most popular astronomy club in the world.

He said Ireland has a phenomenal reputation around the world in the fields of Nanotechnology and Agri Science. "Ireland should be proud of its contribution to science." He added that it's essential for the development of Ireland's economy that we continue to invest significantly in technology and science.

 He finished his speech by quoting Plato: "Astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world to another."

 Professor Mark Ferguson, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland, said, "We are delighted to see the progress that has been made in constructing I-LOFAR at Birr Castle. Science Foundation Ireland has supported this through an investment of €1.4m, to ensure that we have world-class research facilities in Ireland that enable researchers to explore new ideas in the areas of radio astronomy, big data, data analytics and supercomputing.  I am confident that this cutting-edge infrastructure will create exciting opportunities for new and innovative collaborations between researchers, and enable them to secure future funding from industry and from EU programmes."  

Open eir has provided the high speed fibre connection required to power the telescope. Commenting on the company's involvement Richard Moat, CEO of eir, said, "'This is an amazing initiative, which represents a significant step forward in astronomical research, and we at eir are very proud to be able to play a part. We have deployed cutting edge fibre wavelength technology, providing 10GB uncontended symmetrical access to I-LOFAR at Birr Castle. These speeds are game changing for I-LOFAR and enable the team to transmit and exchange vast amounts of data to the I-LOFAR network in Europe.  Working in collaboration with HEAnet we have connected the circuit to Groningen in the Netherlands, which is currently transmitting 3.2 gigabits per second."

Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy commented that it's fantastic for Birr to be part of the largest radio telescope in the world. 

"The LOFAR Telescope is actually a network of radio telescopes distributed across Europe invented by Irishman, Professor George Miley," she continued. "Its location in Birr puts Ireland at the forefront of radio astronomy. Students from all over the country have been staying in Birr while they built the telescope in recent months.

"I was delighted to play my part in supporting this project from the beginning which is largely funded by Science Foundation Ireland along with private and local funding. The next phase of the project is equally exciting with the development of a Visitor Centre which will be a wonderful resource for schools not only locally but nationally.

"I also see huge potential to increase tourism numbers into the area as a result of this investment.

"Birr has a wonderful history of astronomy and the new telescope, though an entirely different structure, will sit well with the longstanding Leviathan telescope, built by the 3rd Earl of Rosse in 1845. That telescope helped put Birr at the forefront of astronomy as it was the largest optical telescope in the world until 1917. Now the new I-LOFAR is putting Birr back on the map once more leading scientific study of our universe including sun activity and finding new planets."

When the speeches concluded, Professor Gallagher, in teeming rain, asked the Minister to officially switch on I-LOFAR using a large switch which "looks like Frankenstein's switch from the castle's dungeons." The telescope immediately began to send information to the supercomputer in the Netherlands and, in a live video connection, a scientist in the Netherlands centre told us that he could see the information arriving from Birr.

The switch on of the Irish LOFAR telescope in Birr Castle, Co. Offaly will feature a promotional video for an upcoming documentary broadcasting on RTÉ One later this year.  Ireland has a distinguished history in reaching for the stars and 700 Light Years From Birr tells the story of this exciting new development which will see Irish scientists playing a central role in international space research.


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