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International LOFAR radio telescope kicks off all-sky survey

International LOFAR radio telescope presents first science, kicks off all-sky survey. World’s most complex radio telescope begins its first low frequency survey of the sky, as it prepares to open its doors to the international astronomy community this year.

Published by the editorial team, 16 January 2012

Scientists from the International LOFAR Telescope (ILT) today announced the kick-off of the project’s first all-sky survey at low radio frequencies and its first open call for observing proposals from the international astronomical community. LOFAR, the Low Frequency Array, is an innovative radio telescope built in the Netherlands and across northern Europe. LOFAR will make the still largely unexplored low-frequency radio sky accessible to astronomers for the first time. It will search for the first stars and black holes in the universe, hunt for cosmic radio bursts, pulsars, and ultra-high energy cosmic particles, study the sun and planets, and explore cosmic magnetic fields.

The project will complete its hardware construction phase in 2012 and open its doors for researchers from all over the world. Early science results from the commissioning phase of LOFAR were presented at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, Texas.

The first major observing project of LOFAR will be the Multi-frequency Snapshot Sky Survey (MSSS). The survey will ultimately yield the most accurate catalogue of radio sources ever produced at these very long radio wavelengths. Designed to observe light at radio wavelengths from 2 to 20 meters, LOFAR can observe multiple, large areas of the sky simultaneously. This means it can survey the radio sky faster. “With LOFAR, we can systematically explore the low-frequency radio sky like never before and see, for example, powerful black holes throughout the entire universe.” says MSSS Project Leader, Dr. George Heald. This initial survey is expected to take several months to complete, although final processing of the data will likely take longer. Much deeper, follow-up surveys are also planned.

When it opens later this year to the science community, LOFAR will already offer some unique capabilities to radio astronomers. LOFAR is a fully digital radio telescope that uses fiber optic cables to connect more than 20,000 low-cost antennas via the internet into a single large telescope. These antennas are grouped together into 48 separate stations distributed over the northeastern part of the Netherlands as well as in Germany, France, the UK, and Sweden. Funding for additional stations has also recently been approved in Poland. Signals from these stations are combined using an IBM BlueGene/P supercomputer to create a telescope with a collecting area of 12 football fields and a resolution equivalent to a telescope 1,000 km in diameter. The combination of many antennas and large effective size gives LOFAR unprecedented sensitivity and resolving power at long radio wavelengths.

The first science team within the LOFAR project counting on this increased sensitivity to achieve their scientific goals is the Epoch of Reionization (EoR) project, led by Prof. Ger de Bruyn. The EoR team hopes to detect extremely feeble signals from the highly redshifted neutral hydrogen 21cm emission line produced during the earliest phase of the Universe before the first stars and galaxies formed. LOFAR’s large collecting area makes it uniquely suited to detect these extremely faint signals. According to Prof. de Bruyn, “Detection of signals from highly redshifted neutral hydrogen, emitted during the childhood years of the Universe, would be a watershed moment in cosmology.” If the EoR observation detection proves successful, the results will reveal detailed information on the first stars and galaxies born in the universe. Several pilot observations by the EoR team have already yielded some of the deepest LOFAR images yet, and the most sensitive ever at these wavelengths. Even deeper observations are planned for the coming year to push closer to the required detection sensitivity of the EoR signal itself.

Low-frequency radio imaging is particularly challenging due to the Earth’s variable ionosphere and interference from man-made radio transmitters, such as FM radio stations. “The first phase of commissioning has demonstrated that a fully digital telescope can overcome these obstacles, which have plagued low-frequency astronomy for so long.”, says Heino Falcke, chair of the International LOFAR  Telescope (ILT). “After ten years of hard work on this project, it is fantastic to see that it actually works.”

LOFAR’s unique capabilities are already proving useful for researchers studying pulsars, the highly magnetized and rapidly rotating neutron stars formed during the gravitational collapse of a massive star following a supernova. Many of these objects give off brief but intense bursts of radio emission lasting in some cases only millionths of a second. LOFARs sensitivity and highly accurate clocks make it possible to study pulsars over the lowest 4 octaves of the observable radio spectrum all at once. When combined with data from other radio telescopes operating at shorter wavelengths, LOFAR observations can isolate the origin of pulsar’s radio emission to within 100km above the magnetic poles of the star. LOFAR’s large field of view will also be used to perform efficient surveys to study known pulsars and detect new ones.

LOFAR will offer its unique scientific capabilities to the astronomical community starting in May with the announcement of its first open call for observing projects. A fraction of the available observing time for the coming year will be allocated to a number of Key Science Projects with the remaining time available for open-sky observing projects. “LOFAR really is the most versatile radio telescope in the world. When we open the doors in May, this amazing new facility will be available to any scientist in the world to use.”, said LOFAR Project Scientist, Dr. Michael Wise.

International LOFAR Telescope Operations are coordinated by ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, on behalf of a consortium consisting of the Netherlands, Germany, France, the UK, and Sweden. Many of the technological solutions developed for LOFAR, in particular the calibration of phased-arrays as well as large-scale data transport and processing, will be highly relevant for future radio telescope projects such as the Square Kilometer Array (SKA). The SKA is a 1.5 billion euro, global science project to build the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope over the next decade. LOFAR represents the first of several SKA technology pathfinder projects to come online.




Cygnus A radio galaxy



LOFAR is being used to study supermassive black holes and the affect they have on their local environment. A classic example of an active galaxy is Cygnus A, which lies in a nearby cluster of galaxies at a distance of about 700 million lightyears. At the center of this galaxy is a powerful active nucleus that emits jets of plasma at relativistic speeds. An early LOFAR image at 240 MHz shown here that these jets extend far beyond the stellar part of the galaxy, up to 200 thousand light years from the center, before abruptly interacting with the intra-cluster medium at impact points called hotspots. (Image credits: J. McKean and M. Wise, ASTRON).




EoR deep field





Deepest image ever produced at 2 m wavelength. The image shows a glimpse of the very distant, very young universe. Every dot in this image is associated with a galaxy hundreds of millions, even billions of light years away. An additional few hundred hours of follow up observations will eventually lead to detection of radio waves from the moment the first Galaxies began to shine. The image, recorded at 140 MHz, is 13×13 degrees across, showing details of only 6 arc seconds with a noise level of 120 micro-Jansky per beam. The effective total exposure time is 10 hours. (Image Credits: S. Yatawatta, ASTRON).

Contact information:
Femke Boekhorst
PR & Communications Officer
ASTRON (Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy), The Netherlands
+31 521595204 and +31 621234243

Marieke Baan
NOVA Information Center
Netherlands Research School for Astronomy, The Netherlands
+31 205257480 and +31 614322627

Dr. Michael Wise
LOFAR Project Scientist
ASTRON (Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy), The Netherlands
+31 521596564

Prof. Dr. Heino Falcke
Chair of the Board, International LOFAR Telescope
Department of Astrophysics, Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands
+31 243652020

Dr. George Heald
MSSS Project Scientist
ASTRON (Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy), The Netherlands
+31 521595774

Prof. Dr. Ger de Bruyn
PI EOR Key Science Project
ASTRON (Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy), The Netherlands
+31 (0) 521595787

Dr. Jason Hessels
Pulsar Expert
ASTRON (Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy), The Netherlands
+31 (0) 521595769

Dr. Marcus Brüggen
Chair of German LOFAR Collaboration
Jacobs University Bremen, Bremen, Germany
+49 421 200 3251

Dr. Philip Best
PI of LOFAR-UK Collaboration
University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland
+44 1316688358

Robert Cumming
LOFAR Sweden Press Officer
Onsala Space Observatory



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