Brussels, November 12, 2013: a symposium hosted by Mairead McGuinness, MEP, “I-LOFAR- A driver for smart and sustainable growth in Europe’s regions”, was held in Brussels at the European Parliament on November 5, 2013.
LOFAR (Low Frequency Array) is a next-generation radio telescope that is currently being deployed across Europe, with stations already operating in the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, the UK and France. Other stations are planned in Italy, Poland, Latvia and Ireland. The Irish LOFAR project, I-LOFAR, was showcased during the symposium.
The I-LOFAR consortium aims to build a cutting-edge radio telescope in Birr Castle Demesne in the midlands of Ireland, and join the International LOFAR network. Since LOFAR stations are best located in isolated places, they offer the opportunity to bring cutting-edge science and related business activities to rural areas. For example the town of Birr is going to be transformed into an “E-Town” and a destination for the ICT industry.
Prof. Peter Gallagher, head of I-LOFAR, explained, "A consortium of Irish universities aim to build a LOFAR radio telescope in Ireland which will significantly improve the ability of the European array to make images as good as the Hubble Space Telescope, but at radio frequencies.” And that, “The Low Frequency Array is a revolutionary network of radio telescopes stretching across Europe that will enable scientists to better understand the structure of the early Universe after the Big Bang, find new planets, and study how the Sun impacts our everyday lives.”
The symposium explored how the development of research infrastructure projects like LOFAR can be supported by research and regional development policy of the EU and its member states.
Support for I-LOFAR comes from various regional, national and European stakeholders. Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, T.D., spoke at the symposium of her support for the project and of the direct benefits I-LOFAR will have on County Offaly (where the I-LOFAR station will be built), “I am delighted that the I-LOFAR project will be located in Offaly, the heart of Ireland. I see it as a great opportunity not only for scientific discovery and new knowledge but also for regional development. It will furthermore be an innovative way of encouraging our young people to pursue the STEM subjects into adulthood. I fully support the project"
Currently I-LOFAR is seeking donors to support the project, following generous donations from Founding Partners Dermot Desmond, Dennis O'Brien, and Joe Hogan.
Hogan, Founder and CTO of Openet, commented on the industry potential of LOFAR, “The Irish LOFAR project has the potential to be a big data and data analytics pathfinder for technology spin-offs in Ireland, allowing Irish software and hardware firms to research extremely fast exascale data analytics models. Innovations in solving the extreme transportation and data processing requirements of LOFAR will drive commercial potential for those companies and research institutions involved.”
He went on to say, “Solving these problems is particularly important given the emerging challenges which the larger multi-billion Euro Square Kilometer Array project will produce from 2020 onwards - allowing Irish based companies access to the larger global spend in radio astronomy. Solutions engineered by Irish companies for these Big Data radio astronomy problems will have far reaching applicability to other industry sectors such as Telecom and Health.”
Attendees included Mairead McGuinness, MEP, Gay Mitchell, MEP, Sean Kelly, MEP, Jim Higgins, MEP, stakeholders from academia, ICT specialists, and radio astronomers.
Broadcaster for RTE and Governor at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Leo Enright, also attended the symposium. He said this about I-LOFAR, "I-LOFAR is potentially a game-changer for the smart economy: The technology's impact goes far beyond astronomy, into agriculture, water management, weather forecasting and just about anything else that requires large-scale monitoring. Sensors are becoming more powerful and versatile in what they can detect, and cheap enough to deploy on a large scale - the challenge now is in developing the computing power needed to make sense of all that data. Radio astronomy is the perfect test-bed for such revolutionary technologies. Ireland is already pioneering the use of sensors in schools and in the ocean. I-LOFAR is a logical next step towards the day when "big data" returns really big rewards for the economy. "
The project challenges researchers in ICT and industry to develop new methods for transporting, storing and processing large data volumes, technologies key to the development of the next generation internet.
On this, Prof. Gallagher said, “LOFAR’s impacts will extend beyond astronomy, driving innovation in big data and data analytics. LOFAR really is big science driving big data innovation, and lead by Europe."
I-LOFAR creates links between universities and industry, inspires school children with the wonder of cutting-edge science, and fascinates the general public.
Sir Brendan Parsons, the 7th Earl of Rosse and great-great grandson of the 3rd Earl of Rosse, who built the Great Leviathan Telescope in the 1840s in Birr where the I-LOFAR station will be built, said at the symposium, “We would like to see our contribution to science not only as contribution to Irish science but as a contribution to science globally”.
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LOFAR started as a new and innovative effort to force a breakthrough in sensitivity for astronomical observations at radio-frequencies below 250 MHz. The basic technology of radio telescopes had not changed since the 1960's: large mechanical dish antennas collect signals before a receiver detects and analyses them. Half the cost of these telescopes lies in the steel and moving structure. A telescope 100x larger than existing instruments would therefore be unaffordable. New technology was required to make the next step in sensitivity needed to unravel the secrets of the early universe and the physical processes in the centers of active galactic nuclei.
LOFAR is the first telescope of this new sort, using an array of simple omni-directional antennas instead of mechanical signal processing with a dish antenna. The electronic signals from the antennas are digitised, transported to a central digital processor, and combined in software to emulate a conventional antenna. The cost is dominated by the cost of electronics and will follow Moore's law, becoming cheaper with time and allowing increasingly large telescopes to be built. So LOFAR is an IT-telescope. The antennas are simple enough but there are a lot of them - about 7000 in the full LOFAR design. To make radio pictures of the sky with adequate sharpness, these antennas are to be arranged in clusters that are spread out over an area of 100 km in diameter within the Netherlands and over 1500 km throughout Europe. Data transport requirements are in the range of many Tera-bits/sec and the processing power needed is tens of Tera-FLOPS.
It was soon realised that LOFAR could be turned into a more generic Wide Area Sensor Network. Sensors for geophysical research and studies in precision agriculture have been incorporated in LOFAR already. Several more applications are being considered, given the increasing interest in sensor networks that “bring the environment on-line.”