A collaboration of over 70 leading astronomers from 22 different UK universities, including the University of Sussex, have built and are working with the first radio telescope to be built in this country for decades.
The Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) telescope will be used to try and detect naturally emitted radio signals in the galaxy that may help us answer questions about our universe.
Radio telescopes work by detecting radio waves emitted by stars and black holes, which can then be used in researching the development of the universe.
Just as an optical telescope can receive light signals, the computers connected to LOFAR receive radio signals which can be translated into scientific data.
Signals from up to 10 billion years ago could potentially be detected by LOFAR, which is much more sensitive than previous radio telescopes built in Britain, due to its use of digital technology. This information could be used to fuel research in a number of fields, from looking for alien life to developing theories about when and in what conditions the first stars were formed.
The LOFAR-UK project is based in Chilbolton, Hampshire, and consists of 96 antennae which will transmit the data they collect to a ‘supercomputer’ in the Netherlands. It is part of a wider organisation, LOFAR Europe, which, when all its stations are opened, will consist of over 5000 antennae in a variety of European countries including Germany, France, Sweden and Poland.
Sussex physicists are involved in two of the six major research projects being conducted by the LOFAR group. The first is the Epoch of Reionisation Survey, which will explore how and when reionisation (a process that resulted in major changes in the gases of the universe) occurred.
The second is the Galaxy Survey, which will explore the way that stars have grown and developed over time. Dr Illian Illiev of the Sussex Astronomy Centre, who sits on LOFAR-UK’s Managing Committee, said that he would be involved in these projects “for the duration of LOFAR”, and estimated that the radio telescope would operate for “thousands of hours.”
It is estimated that the Chilbolton site will produce seven petabytes (or seven million gigabytes) of raw data each year which must be transmitted to the central station in the Netherlands. The telescope was constructed over the summer and was opened last month in a ceremony performed by Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered the first radio pulsars.