Ireland takes the plunge and joins European astronomy network

Last September, the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) director general, Prof Tim de Zeeuw, swooped into Ireland on a mission.

Speaking at the Irish National Astronomy Meeting at UCD, one of his primary concerns appeared to be recruiting the country into a huge project.

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

The huge volume of data from all the telescopes is combined using advanced data analytics on a supercomputer in the Netherlands. The network, therefore, performs like a single, super-telescope of a size equivalent to the geographical separation of the constituent telescopes.

At the time Ireland wasn’t involved. That has since officially changed, even though the move was always on the cards.

LOFAR, Astronomy, Telescope

Yesterday (28 June) Minister of State for Training, Skills, Innovation, Research and Development, John Halligan, TD, announced Ireland was now in the network.

A combined move by the state and Trinity College, the Irish telescope joining the network is soon to be located in Birr, Co Offaly.

Costing €1.9m in total, the construction of the equipment was confirmed last year, with Birr Castle the location. It will sit adjacent to 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.

“Joining the International LOFAR Telescope collaboration will open many new research and funding opportunities for Irish researchers and students in Europe and further afield,” said Dr Patrick Prendergast, Provost of Trinity.

“Indeed, one of the I-LOFAR (Irish arm) team, Tom Ray, a professor at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies and an Adjunct Professor of Astronomy at Trinity, has recently won a prestigious €2m advanced grant from the European Research Council.”

Joining LOFAR 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.

Prof Peter Gallagher, head of the I-LOFAR collaboration, said: “This is the first time that a research-grade radio telescope has been built in Ireland.

“I-LOFAR will enable Irish researchers to study solar activity and exploding stars, search for new planets, and explore the distant universe in a completely new way.

“And this will be achieved by developing cutting-edge data analytics techniques on supercomputers here in Ireland and the Netherlands. I-LOFAR really will be a test-bed for big data and data analytics.”

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