Our scientists were at the forefront of the development of a new UK-based radio telescope which is helping researchers to understand more about the universe. Part of a Europe-wide project, the technology combines low-frequency radio waves with high-speed computing to generate images from space of unprecedented resolution.
LOFAR (Low Frequency Array) is a Europe-wide network of telescopes designed to study the sky at the lowest radio frequencies accessible from the surface of the Earth. Professor Rob Fender, who led the development of the LOFAR-UK station, says: "The quality of the images produced by LOFAR will help scientists to understand the fundamentals of astrophysics - the birth and life-cycle of stars and galaxies and the ultimate end points of stars, called black holes."
Each LOFAR station is about the size of a football field and covered in antennas. The stations are connected by very high-speed internet, and signals from the stations are sent to a supercomputer at the project's base in the Netherlands which translates them into high-resolution images.
The addition of the UK station in 2010 increased the width of the LOFAR array to more than 1,000 kilometres. This large distance between the stations (which are based in Germany, France, Sweden as well as the UK and the Netherlands) is key to LOFAR's performance; the larger the distance between stations, the finer the detail that can be revealed in the images. LOFAR can also 'see' vast areas of space. Whereas normal telescopes have a tiny field of vision, LOFAR can survey a twentieth of the sky in one go. The combination of these two factors means that LOFAR will receive more information from space than any previous telescope on Earth.
"Southampton is now leading a LOFAR project that is sweeping the sky continuously looking for features such as black holes, neutron stars and stellar explosions, all of which produce radio bursts that can be detected by LOFAR," says Rob.
The development of LOFAR-UK, which is based at Chilbolton in Hampshire, was a collaboration between 22 universities and remains the largest collaboration of the astronomy community in the UK.