Largest radio telescope gets royal seal of approval

The world's largest radio telescope has been officially launched at a special ceremony in The Netherlands attended by astronomers from the UK and many other countries.

Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands formally opened LOFAR, which stands for Low Frequency Array, on Saturday 12 June. Representatives from consortia in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom then officially signed the memorandum that kicks off their scientific collaboration.

The all-electronic 'next generation' telescope developed by ASTRON can now offer to astronomers the joint use of a network of antennae that spreads from its core region in the northeast of The Netherlands to distances of thousands of kilometres across Europe. It includes 96 antennae installed last week (7-11 June) at the Chilbolton Observatory in Hampshire.

Dr. René Vermeulen, Director of the Radio Observatory at ASTRON, is delighted about the international collaboration. He says: "With its European dimension LOFAR will serve a large international community of astronomers to study the Universe at the lowest frequencies accessible from the Earth in astounding detail."

LOFAR uses sophisticated computing and high speed internet to combine all the antennae's signals to survey the sky in great detail. The giant telescope will enable scientists to study how distant galaxies take shape, find out when the early Universe was first lit up, probe the properties of energetic cosmic particles, map magnetised structures all across the sky, and monitor the sun's activity as well as a wide range of variable and explosive celestial objects. It is a pathfinder for the development of a global telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

Dr Philip Best, from Edinburgh's School of Physics & Astronomy, is the deputy project leader of LOFAR-UK. Philip says: "When completed, LOFAR will consist of thousands of antennae spread across stations throughout Europe, of which Chilbolton is one. Stations are already built or under construction in The Netherlands, Germany, France and Sweden. Their signals, brought together by a supercomputer in The Netherlands, give a very wide view of the sky."

"At Edinburgh, we will be using LOFAR for research into distant star-forming galaxies and black holes in the early Universe"


Notes to editors:

LOFAR, or Low Frequency Array, is designed and built by ASTRON. LOFAR exists of about 25,000 antennas, spread over fields (stations) in a large central area of approximately 400 hectares between Exloo and Buinen in The Netherlands, and in the provinces of Groningen and Friesland. LOFAR stations have also been built in other countries, including the UK, and more are being added. All stations are connected with a supercomputer by glass fibres. In this way, the system is actually a giant telescope with a diameter of 100 kilometres in The Netherlands and over 1,000 kilometres when the international stations are connected. The LOFAR telescope opens a new window to the Universe, by observing at very low radio frequencies. Compared to conventional radio telescopes, LOFAR can map very large parts of the sky. By observing tens of millions of sources, it is expected new phenomena will be discovered.

LOFAR-UK is a consortium of astronomers representing 22 British universities, making it the largest radio astronomy consortium in the country. Over 70 leading UK astronomers are directly involved in the project. The universities involved include: Aberystwyth, Birmingham, Cambridge, Cardiff, Durham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Hertfordshire, Leicester, Liverpool John Moores, Kent, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Open University, Oxford, Portsmouth, QMUL, Sheffield, Southampton, Sussex, and UCL. Other participating organisations include RAL/Chilbolton and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

LOFAR-UK is funded through a collaboration of UK universities with the SEPnet consortium, and the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

The LOFAR opening was part of the International SKA Forum 2010, hosted by ASTRON Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, which designed and developed LOFAR, and The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).