Getting the lowdown on LOFAR

Me standing next to one of the LOFAR antennas. Credit: Graham Southorn

Today Sky at Night Magazine’s editor, Graham, and I visited the Chilbolton Observatory in Hampshire to see the UK’s contribution to the LOFAR project, which is now entering its final stages of construction. LOFAR (the LOw Frequency ARray) is a radio telescope which will observe the Universe at wavelengths between 1.2 and 30 metres. It’s going to work by combining the observations of several separate arrays of antennas across Europe, using a process known as interferometry, to create one enormous ‘virtual’ radio telescope.

Work will soon be completed on the low-band array at Chilbolton, which is what we saw being built today. As you can see from this panorama (click the image below for a bigger version) there are quite a few antennas already in place; they’re the brown metal lattices with vertical poles on them. There’ll be another array (the high-band array) constructed on a similar plot, right next to the low-band array, very soon.

A panorama of the LOFAR UK low-band array under construction. Credit: Will Gater

LOFAR will create high-resolution views of the radio sky and will study, amongst other things, transient objects (such as black holes gorging on matter and supernovae) and what the Universe was like when it was just 400 million years old (the time when the first stars were born). There’s a much more in-depth run down on what the project will be studying on the LOFAR site here.

Whilst the individual antennas themselves may seem relatively simple, the science they’ll produce when the whole project comes online promises to be hugely impressive. I can’t wait to see the first results!

To keep up with developments at the Chilbolton site be sure to read the excellent LOFAR UK blog here.

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