A MAJOR scientific project to be based in Birr, was showcased in the European Parliament in Brussels on Tuesday, where funding is being sought for the Birr Castle Radio Telescope Project.
The Irish LOFAR project aims to establish a next-generation radio telescope at Birr Castle. LOFAR (Low Frequency Array) is a next-generation radio telescope that is currently being deployed across Europe, with stations already operating in the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, the UK and France. Other stations are planned in Italy, Poland, Latvia and Ireland. Speaking at a special seminar in the European Parliament on Tuesday, where details of the ambitious project were unveiled to MEPs and the European Commission, MEP Mairead McGuinness said the potential of the project to place a LOFAR (Low Frequency Array) telescope in Birr was beyond imagining.
The event in Brussels was also attended event organiser Peter Gallagher Associate Professor of Physics at Trinity College Dublin, and key note speakers Brendan Parsons, Earl of Rosse and descendant of William Parsons who built the Leviathan telescope in Ireland, Joe Hogan the founder of Irish network operator software vendor Openet and European Entrepreneur of the Year 2013, and Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy. Mairead McGuinness said 'it was inspiring to listen to Brendan Parsons, the Earl of Rosse, outlining why he believes that this development was the most logical and most productive successor to the great Leviathan telescope developed by his ancestor William Parsons, the third Earl of Rosse in 1845.' 'The proposed site in Birr Castle Demesne is extremely radio quiet, making it ideal for radio frequency astronomy. It has established itself through history as a place of science and innovation in a rural setting.
I-LOFAR delegation at the EU Parliament. From left to right: Prof. Peter Gallagher (I-LOFAR lead/TCD), Lord and Lady Rosse, Marcella Corcoran Kennedy (TD), Mairead McGuinness (MEP), Dr. John Quinn (UCD), Clodagh Memery (TCD Foundation), Prof. Rene Vermeulen (International LOFAR Telescope Director).
'The funding requirement of €1.5 million would be money well spent,' McGuinness added.
The I-LOFAR project will give Irish researchers access to an additional tool for astrophysics and ICT research; our greater understanding of mathematics, physics and technology will be invaluable for students. The town of Birr, where the Irish LOFAR will be situated, is going to be transformed into an "E-Town" and a destination for the ICT industry.
Marcella Corcoran Kennedy TD, local FG deputy told the meeting that the project would bring 'enormous benefits' to the midlands. 'A local fund raising group has been established to bring the project to the region. The project has huge importance for regional enterprise development and in giving today's children an opportunity to engage with science in the future.' Deputy Corcoran Kennedy also offered her full support to the project and committed to ensuring that there was political support for the project.
Lord Rosse said Birr would have a very unique scientific attraction if the project went ahead. 'It is important to see the development of I-LOFAR in the context of a great scientific tradition,' he said.
The project thus far has raised €300,000 with the ultimate target being €1.5 million. Birr has to fundraise €750,000, 50 per cent of the total cost.
This week Cllr Michael Loughnane of Birr Town Council pointed out that in the overall scheme of things €750,000 is not a large sum of money and a similar project in Poland costing several million Euro was financially supported by the EU. 'If this exciting project goes ahead,' he remarked, 'it will be good for Birr because it will mean we will have one of the fastest broadband systems in Ireland, which in turn could attract businesses to open in the town.' Cllr Loughnane called on Minister Richard Bruton to give some capital funding to this project.
Birr might also benefit from a significant increase in visitors to the town, as it's likely that large numbers of students and tourists will visit a proposed visitor centre.
Professor Gallagher said I-LOFAR will give Ireland an opportunity to join a flagship international science project which is revolutionising our understanding of the universe. For €1.5 million investment, Professor Gallagher explained, Ireland can build a world-class radio telescope in Birr and join a €150 million European network of radio telescopes - a project which would be the largest international science project that Ireland has ever participated in.
The radio-telescope bears no resemblance to a traditional telescope constructed of lenses mounted in a cylindrical eyepiece, but is instead an array comprised of several large black panels resembling solar-panels positioned close together in a field. The radio telescope in Birr will be connected by fibre-optic cable to Europe via Birr Technology Centre, establishing Birr as the most connected location in the midlands - drawing the attention of technology companies seeking a location to establish their business. Prof. Gallagher said that he is hopeful the proposed telescope might someday bear fruit worthy of winning a Nobel Prize and that its creation would allow connections to be forged between universities and businesses, as well as fascinating students and inspiring them to study science, technology and mathematics at undergrad and postgrad levels. He explained Birr is a perfect location for its construction because it is flat and does not suffer from radio interference to the same degree as many other locations in Europe. So silent is the radio interference in Ireland, Prof. Gallagher explained, that some Dutch scientists recently declared Ireland to have as little radio interference as Mongolia.
Prof. Gallagher recalled that in July 2010 Lord Rosse gave Prof. Gallagher and his team access to some outhouses accommodating sheep near the Wetherlock. Immediately they set about installing the necessary electrical supply to feed a working observatory and Prof. Gallagher said that it was the first step towards understanding the location and setting up a workable link with Trinity College in Dublin.