AN IMPORTANT day in the history of Birr Castle took place on Saturday afternoon when a new space observatory was officially launched. This new observatory could be part of something very exciting indeed because it is possible that one day it could detect the existence of extra-terrestrial life. If the project comes to fruition it will also be part of a system which will expand our knowledge of the early evolution of the universe.
The new Observatory is called the Rosse Solar-Terrestrial Observatory and it is located in former farmsheds and fields in the Mount Palmer section of the Demesne. A number of antennae are already in place in the Mount Palmer area, the farm sheds have been considerably renovated, and €300,000 has been raised for the project. Fundraising efforts are currently underway to raise another €1.2 million for the scheme, and the Castle and Trinity College Dublin are appealing to the business people of Birr and Offaly to financially support this exciting project.
Businessmen Dermot Desmond and Denis O'Brien have both contributed €50,000 each to I-LOFAR. Birr businessman Stevie Grant has also contributed a significant amount. The Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation is currently considering whether it will give funding to I-LOFAR and is due to make an announcement on the matter during July.
Speaking during Saturday's launch Brendan Parsons Lord Rosse said his ancestors, the 3rd and 4th Earls, would have been very excited and proud to see this new development. He said that in terms of ambition and breaking new ground, this project was on a parallel with the giant telescope constructed in the demesne in the 1840s. He pointed out that the Third Earl studied in Trinity College Dublin. He said the renovated farmsheds were built during the 5th Earl's time, who brought over an agricultural adviser from Denmark. 'He was more interested in agriculture than in science.' He said the I-LOFAR project is a dynamic and exciting scheme.
Professor Peter Gallagher, School of Physics, Trinity College, recalled that he first visited the farmsheds four years ago and they were full of sheep. Now the sheep have been moved elsewhere and have been replaced by a building devoted to Astrophysics. He commented that the Rosse Solar-Terrestrial Observatory is already a working observatory. He said the antennae which are already in situ and working are able to pick up radio waves being emitted by the sun. Clouds are not a barrier to their ability to function.
Professor Gallagher added that the antennae are also able to monitor the Earth's ionosphere which can be helpful in forecasting disruptions in communication systems. He pointed out that one of the Birr antennae detected a major solar burst and this fact was reported in 'Nature Physics', a leading Science magazine.
'The ambition is to convert the farmsheds into a lecture area suitable for visiting students.' The Professor added that while raising €1.2 million may seem like a large sum of money, in the context of science projects it is not a large sum. He praised Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy who, he said, has been very supportive of I-LOFAR, including travelling with an I-LOFAR, fund-seeking delegation to the EU Parliament earlier on in the year.
I-LOFAR is the name for the Irish version of this international project with the 'I' standing for 'Irish' and 'LOFAR' standing for 'Low Frequency Array.'
'Birr's tradition and radio-quiet environment make it an ideal location for being part of what is, when all the radio telescopes throughout Europe are combined as one, the largest low frequency radio telescope in the world,' said the Professor. 'I-LOFAR will not only attract additional visitors to Birr, but will contribute to Ireland emerging as a key player in international research and development.'
I-LOFAR will be part of an international network of radio telescopes which are referred to as LOFAR. LOFAR is currently up and running on a Europe-wide basis with about 60 radio telescopes throughout the continent including Sweden, France, Britain, Germany and Holland (there are 42 radio telescopes in Holland). €150 million in funding has been invested in the project and this funding has come from National Science Agencies and the European Regional Development Fund. The aim of LOFAR's work includes providing new views of exploding stars, and detecting previously unknown planets. Each radio telescope consists of multiple antennae. LOFAR will enable the study of Black Holes (which were predicted by Einstein's General Theory of Relativity).
'Lord and Lady Rosse have been nothing short of magnificent since we first came to Birr,' remarked Professor Gallagher. 'On every visit they have been very hospitable to us.' He complimented George Vaugh for helping renovate the farmsheds. 'George did a great deal of work including bringing gravel to the area, as well as electricity. Our name for the sheds now is the control room. This is a good start and I think we have a bright future.'
Dr Patrick Prendergast, the Provost of Trinity College, said he was delighted to be present. He said the connection between Trinity College and the Parsons family goes back hundreds of years. It was a connection which was devoted to the love and pursuit of knowledge. It was a connection which was dedicated to science and which also possessed a strong sense of public service.
He commented that as a student in Trinity in the 1770s Sir Lawrence Parsons, the second Earl, was an auditor in the university. He represented Dublin University in the Irish House of Commons. 'We are very proud of him in Trinity College. As an MP he spoke strongly for independence and integrity. He was praised by Wolfe Tone who said he was one of the few honest men in the Irish House of Commons.
'The Third Earl was a truly remarkable man who in 1845 constructed the Hubble telescope of its time, which is an extraordinary piece of scientific heritage for Ireland. Using his telescope the Third Earl drew the very first images of the Milky Way. He possessed the same qualities of integrity and decency as his father. He was a vocal critic of the government in London during the famine and he told them the situation was desperate. He was an important voice of compassion and economic sense. In 1862 he was made a chancellor of Trinity.'
The Provost said the Third Earl handed on his passions and enthusiasms to his children, and the Fourth Earl's brother, Algernon, invented the steam turbine.
He said the current Earl, the 7th Earl, has continued the great family tradition of a love and pursuit of knowledge. He said the 7th Earl was recently elected an honorary member of Trinity College.
'Today is another milestone in the Parsons family's long commitment to science. I want to thank them for their marvellous generosity. To engage in astrophysics in a place which is crucial in the history of astrophysics is something special.'
Lord Rosse said that when the giant telescope was officially opened in 1845 a local clergyman walked up and down the inside of the barrel of the telescope blessing it as he went. He asked two local clergymen, Archdeacon Wayne Carney and Fr Tony Cahir, to bless I-LOFAR in Birr using water taken from St Brendan's Well in the demesne.
Fr Cahir quoted Pope Francis who recently, during an astronomers' convention, pointed out that, 'It is only right that men and women everywhere should have access to research and scientific training. The hope that one day all people will be able to enjoy the benefits of science is one which spurs all of us on, scientists in particular. Only a fraction of the global population has access to such knowledge, which opens the heart and the mind to the great questions which human beings have always asked: Where do we come from? Where are we going? The search for an answer to these questions can lead us to an encounter with the Creator, the loving Father, for in him we live and move and have our being.'
Archdeacon Carney quoted from the Book of Sirach: 'All creation obeys His will. He declares what is past and what will be. Not a thought escapes Him. Nothing can be added to him, nothing taken away. Who could ever grow tired of gazing at His glory?'
If you would like to make a donation to the I-LOFAR project please contact Professor Gallagher at (087) 6568975.