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New radio telescope in Birr detects huge solar storms

Thursday, 21 September 2017

THE past two weeks have been nothing but stormy for the sun, and the recently installed LOFAR radio telescope in Birr has been key to helping scientists keep an eye on weather conditions on our stormy stellar neighbour and to forecasting its effects here on earth.

On September 3, a huge group of sunspots, many times the size of the earth, appeared on the surface of the sun and they have been producing solar storms and promoting spectacular displays of the northern lights ever since.

"This sunspot group has unleashed one of the largest flares in over a decade and one of the biggest in the last 40 years," according to Professor Peter Gallagher, a solar physicist in the School of Physics at Trinity, "And we detected another whopping solar storm last Sunday, which was moving at about 3,000 km/s and arrived at earth on Tuesday night [September 12]."

Solar flares are huge bursts of radiation that can release energies equivalent to billions of hydrogen bombs in several minutes and can be associated with ejections of hot clouds of gas into space at millions of kilometres per hour. While solar storms can produce beautiful displays of the northern lights, they can also cause problems in the communication and navigation systems that we use as part of our every-day lives.

"The recent solar storms have reportedly caused problems with radio communication systems used by first responders dealing with the fall-out of Hurricane Irma in the US," added Professor Gallagher. "We have been using our instruments at Birr Castle to monitor this activity and its effects on the earth's upper atmosphere and magnetic field."

Key to monitoring this increased solar activity has been the recently installed Irish Low Frequency Array (I-LOFAR) radio telescope at Birr.

Research Fellow at Trinity, Dr Diana Morosan, said: "I-LOFAR uses hundreds of sensitive antennae to detect bursts of radio waves from solar flares and solar storms. I-LOFAR is enabling us to observe the Sun with greater accuracy than ever before and therefore to better understand its effects on our planet and on the technologies we depend on every day."

But these are early days for I-LOFAR operations, and as the team learns how to operate the array on its own and as part of the International LOFAR Telescope, they are expecting many new astronomical discoveries from Birr.

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