Birmingham astronomers aim to unlock secrets of the universe with the world's largest radio telescope

Academics at the University of Birmingham are hoping to find the origins of the universe after helping to develop the world's largest radio telescope, the UK station of which was launched this week in Chilbolton, Hampshire.

The European Low Frequency Array Telescope (LOFAR) operates in the poorly explored 30 – 240 MHz frequency range and offers an unprecedented field of view and multiple beams.

Dr Somak Raychaudhury, senior lecturer in astrophysics at the University of Birmingham’s School of Physics and Astronomy, collaborated with colleagues across UK and Europe on the all-electric ‘next generation’ LOFAR.

He said this ground-breaking telescope will open up a new chapter in radio astrophysics and will help astronomers to study the universe in more detail than previously possible.

The project will eventually comprise a network of 36 radio telescope stations spread over Europe to enable astronomers to study the universe in incredible detail. Half of the stations will be in the Netherlands, while others will be stationed in Germany, UK, Sweden, France and Spain.

In addition 5000 radio antennae will be erected across Europe, 96 of which have already been installed at the Chilbolton Observatory near Andover, Hampshire, and others have been fixed in the Netherlands and Germany.

Dr Raychaudhury, who is the Birmingham representative on the UK-LOFAR board, said, ‘A giant black hole exists at the centre of each major galaxy in the universe, including our galaxy the Milky Way. We don’t understand how they were formed, yet they are responsible for the formation of galaxies and eventually our existence. Black holes interact with their environment, producing a phenomenal amount of energy, but up until now we haven’t been able to observe most of it, since they are predominantly emitted in the 10 – 200 MHz frequencies, which is also used by radio FM and TV signals and by mobile phones. This new telescope is able to ignore ‘human noise’ and is able for the first time to ‘listen’ at these FM frequencies and will open up a whole new universe to us.’

Notes to editors

1) LOFAR, or Low Frequency Array, is designed and built by ASTRON. LOFAR comprises about 25,000 antennae, 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 kilometers 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. For more information about LOFAR, go to: www.lofar.org

2) LOFAR-UK is a consortium of astronomers representing 22 British universities, making it the largest radio astronomy consortium in the country. More than 70 leading UK astronomers are directly involved in the project. The universities involved comprise: 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 Technologies Facilities Council (STFC).
LOFAR-UK is funded through a collaboration of UK universities with the SEPnet consortium (www.sepnet.ac.uk), and the UK Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC). www.lofar-uk.org

3) 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). For more information about the International SKA Forum, see www.iskaf2010.nl.
4) LOFAR will revolutionise our ability to study the universe and allow us to address five key science questions on the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) roadmap, namely:

  • What is the universe made of and how does it evolve? 
  •  Are we alone in the universe?
  • How do galaxies, stars and planets form and evolve?
  • What are the laws of physics in extreme conditions? 
  •  How does the Sun affect the Earth?

For further information:

Kate Chapple, Press Office, University of Birmingham, tel 0121 414 2772 or 07789 921164.