After a century, world-class astronomy returns to Birr Castle

New radio telescope will be able to detect the faintest signals from the universe

Students Oian MacMichael (left) and Luis Alberto Canizares walk through the I-LOFAR  in the grounds of Birr Castle in Co Offaly.  Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Students Oian MacMichael (left) and Luis Alberto Canizares walk through the I-LOFAR in the grounds of Birr Castle in Co Offaly. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

Birr Castle’s status as a world-class place for astronomy research has been restored with the opening of the Irish Low Frequency Array Radio Telescope (I-LOFAR).

The €2 million I-LOFAR is part of a much bigger network of radio telescopes spread from Ireland to Poland and connected by a high speed network to a centre in the Dutch city of Groningen.

I-LOFAR was funded with a €1.4 million grant from Science Foundation Ireland (SFI). The rest came from donations from business people including Denis O’Brien and Dermot Desmond as well as local schoolchildren who raised €700.

The castle’s original telescope had a diameter of six foot (1.8 metres). From 1845 to 1917, the telescope, known as the Leviathan of Parsonstown, was the biggest ever built.

The LOFAR array across Europe has the equivalent of a diameter of 2,000 kilometres, making it over a million times more powerful than the original Leviathan.

“It means we can make very precise measurements of very faint objects,” explained Prof Peter Gallagher of Trinity College Dublin (TCD), head of the I-LOFAR collaboration.

The research will be able to detect exoplanets, planets around other stars, with strong magnetic fields like Earth which make them places that could harbour life.

To date 3,500 have been discovered including many which potentially could have the conditions suitable for life as it is on Earth.

I-LOFAR can also pick up signals from extraterrestrial intelligence if any such intelligence exists elsewhere in the universe.

It will also be used to monitor solar flares and the early light from the universe.

“It is humbling to realise that 170 years later we have brought one of the biggest telescopes in the world back to Birr,” Prof Gallagher said.

“I think our heritage in astronomy is as important to us as the Book of Kells or W.B Yeats.”