Swedes Make World's Largest Telescope Bigger
|The 192 radio antennas that make up Onsala’s Lofar station cover an area the size of a soccer pitch. Credit: Onsala Space Observatory/Leif Helldner|
On Monday, Sweden’s Minister for Education and Research, Jan Björklund, will open Onsala Space Observatory’s newest telescope. Part of LOFAR, the world’s largest radio telescope, it is the biggest telescope built in Sweden in the last 35 years. LOFAR will map radio signals which have travelled across the universe for billions of years. Scientists expect LOFAR to answer questions about the nature of our universe.
LOFAR (LOw Frequency ARray) is a new kind of radio telescope. It can see radio waves with low frequencies, similar to those that give us FM radio. Rather than collecting signals from individual radio sources, LOFAR continuously monitors large swathes of sky. Lofar is more sensitive to the longest observable radio waves than any other telescope. It can see many billions of light years out into space, back to the time before the first stars formed, a few hundred million years after the Big Bang.
The 192 new radio antennas at Onsala’s LOFAR station look modest enough. But the radio signals they collect will be linked together with 47 similar stations over the whole of Europe, and sent over Internet to a central supercomputer in the Netherlands. This means huge amount of data traffic: the equivalent of over 7000 DVD films per day just from the Swedish station. The telescope creates images of the sky using a unique combination of computer power and innovative software. Together, LOFAR’s antennas form a single telescope with a diameter of 1300 kilometres.
Hans Olofsson is director of Onsala Space Observatory and professor at Chalmers.
“For astronomers like me, LOFAR means that we can see far enough to be able to study the universe’s early history. We want to discover traces of the clouds of hydrogen gas that filled the universe 13 billion years ago, and find out just why today’s universe looks the way it does,” he says.
Scientists expect LOFAR to discover hitherto unknown types of astronomical objects. It will also investigate the environments of black holes, find extreme galaxies and pulsars, and search for planets around other stars.
Onsala Space Observatory was founded in 1949 and was led for three decades by Professor Olof Rydbeck. Since its inception the observatory has contributed to the forefront of research in radio astronomy, both through interpretation of observations and developing new technology. Since 1990 the observatory is the Swedish National Facility for Radio Astronomy. It is financed by the Swedish Research Council and operated by Chalmers.
“Onsala Space Observatory has always been a prominent centre for radio astronomy research, and now it’s part of the world’s most exciting radio telescope. In the future we plan to develop the technology that makes Lofar unique when we build the next generation of radio telescopes, says René Vermeulen of Astron, the Netherlands national institute for radio astronomy, and director of the International LOFAR Telescope.
LOFAR is one of many examples of Onsala Space Observatory’s increasing involvement in international projects. Chalmers is one of three international partners in the submillimetre telescope Apex in Chile, which recently discovered hydrogen peroxide in space. Last winter Chalmers delivered sensitive new receivers to the Alma Observatory, the world’s largest astronomy project, currently being built in Chile’s Atacama desert. The observatory is also planning for the radio observatory SKA (Square Kilometre Array), to be built in Australia or South Africa, in which LOFAR’s new technology will be developed even further. SKA is expected to give answers about the origins of both the universe itself and life in space.
“Space research is also critical for our understanding of the earth and its climate, and it invariably leads to spin-off effects. International facilities like Lofar foster strong cooperation across both scientific and cultural borders,” says Karin Markides, President of Chalmers.
“I believe LOFAR in particular will have great importance for our ability to handle very large amounts of data,” she adds.
During the inauguration ceremony at Onsala Space Observatory on Monday Minister of Education and Research Jan Björklund will take some of the first ever images of the sky with the Swedish LOFAR station. He will also visit the station together with around a hundred invited guests.
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