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The University of Southampton

First pictures from LOFAR telescope

Published: 2 February 2011

A new UK telescope has taken 'radio pictures' deep into space for the first time in the quest to discover more about the birth of stars and galaxies just after the Big Bang.

The images of the 3C196 quasar - a black hole in a distant galaxy - were taken in January 2011 by the International LOFAR Telescope (ILT). LOFAR (Low Frequency Array), which is co-ordinated by ASTRON in the Netherlands, is a network of radio telescopes designed to study the sky at the lowest radio frequencies accessible from the surface of the Earth with unprecedented resolution.

The UK-based telescope at the Science and Technology Facility Council's (STFC) Chilbolton Observatory in Hampshire is the western-most 'telescope station' in LOFAR. The addition of Chilbolton to other stations in Europe makes the LOFAR array almost 1,000 km wide - 10 times as large as the original array in the Netherlands - and creates the largest telescope in the world.

LOFAR-UK project leader Professor Rob Fender from the University of Southampton says: "This is fantastic. Combining the LOFAR signals together is a very important milestone for this truly international facility. For the first time, the signals from LOFAR radio telescopes in the Netherlands, France, Germany and the United Kingdom have been successfully combined in the LOFAR BlueGene/P supercomputer in the Netherlands.

"The connection between the Chilbolton telescope and the supercomputer requires an internet speed of 10 gigabits per second - over 1,000 times faster than the typical home broadband speeds. Getting that connection working without a hitch was a great feat requiring close collaboration between STFC, industry, universities around the country, and our international partners."

Credit: ASTRON and LOFAR
A close up of the quasar 3C196

Derek McKay-Bukowski, STFC/SEPnet Project Manager at LOFAR Chilbolton, says: "This is a very significant event for the LOFAR project and a great demonstration of what the UK is contributing. The new images are three times sharper than has been previously possible with LOFAR.

"LOFAR works like a giant zoom lens - the more radio telescopes we add, and the further apart they are, the better the resolution and sensitivity. This means we can see smaller and fainter objects in the sky which will help us to answer exciting questions about cosmology and astrophysics."

As well as deep cosmology, LOFAR will be used to monitor the Sun's activity, study planets like Jupiter, and understand more about lightning and geomagnetic storms. LOFAR will also contribute to UK and European preparations for the planned global next generation radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

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