The VICE Channels

    The Largest Telescope on Earth

    Written by

    Alex Pasternack

    For the longest time, astronomy centered around what could be observed with our most wonderful and yet meager visual tool, the eye. But in the last fifty years, the ability to gaze up into space using radio waves, infrared and ultraviolet radiation and X- and gamma rays have provided new and completely unexpected information about the nature and history of the Universe, yielding a cosmic zoo of strange and exotic objects. But we have yet to properly explore the low radio frequencies, the lowest energy extreme of the spectrum accessible from the Earth. (Astronomers don’t actually listen to the signals, but convert them into data and images.)

    With more “resolution” than any other telescope, the 1500 km-wide LOFAR array will open this frontier to a broad range of astrophysical studies, including transient sources, ultra high energy cosmic rays, cosmic magnetism, and the Epoch of Reionization.

    In the past month, using signals from the new station, LOFAR has delivered has delivered its first EU-UK radio ’pictures.’ The images of the 3C196 quasar (a black hole in a distant galaxy) were taken last month by the giant network, which is now almost 1000 km wide – ten times as large as the original array in the Netherlands – making it the largest telescope in the world. LOFAR will also contribute to UK and European preparations for the planned global next generation radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

    “This is fantastic”, says Professor Rob Fender, who features in our piece. “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 1000 times faster than the typical home broadband speeds."

    Don’t be surprised. That’s just the kind of bandwidth you need when you’re downloading the cosmos.