updated 2/17/2012 3:21:17 PM ET 2012-02-17T20:21:17

Reinforcing metal mesh, wires, polystyrene and a metal shipping container are all that can be seen of a component of a new generation of massive radio telescopes at Chilbolton, Hampshire, UK.

The European telescope LOFAR (Low Frequency Array) is designed to study the sky at the lowest radio frequencies accessible from the surface of the Earth with unprecedented resolution. This low-tech hardware, with no moving parts, relies on adding digital time delays to "point" the telescope in a particular direction.

But although low-tech and no moving parts usually means less maintenance, the weather can still wreck havoc.

ANALYSIS: LOFAR Sheds New Light on a Pulsar Mystery

In January, winds of over 60 mph lifted the covering off one of the High Band Antenna (HBA) tiles, exposing the polystyrene lids that protect a set of 16 of the antennas. Some of the lids then blew away, causing damage to the already wind-battered Low Band Antennas (LBA).

In total 15 LBAs were broken, but due to the nature of the telescope, the rest of the station remained up and running.

On Wednesday (15th Feb.), around 20 volunteer workers, mainly postgraduate students and researchers from the nearby LOFAR-UK Universities in Portsmouth, Southampton and Oxford joined Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) employees for a day of repairs. This included re-surveying some of the site and replacing the damaged antennas.

ANALYSIS: Seeing in a New Light (and Searching for Extraterrestrials) with LOFAR

Karen Masters, from the University of Portsmouth said: "Almost all of the repairs from the storm damage last month has now been fixed and all but one LBA and one HBA should be running as normal (those last two will be fixed very soon)."

With LOFAR, astronomers have gone back to some of the same techniques used in the first pulsar observations, but have used modern computing and optical fiber connections to increase many times over the power of their telescope. It works by connecting thousands of small antennas spread right across Europe using high speed internet and a massive supercomputer near its central core at ASTRON in the Netherlands.

Ben Stappers, from University of Manchester, said: "We have returned to the frequencies where pulsars were first discovered, but now with a telescope of a sophistication that could not have been imagined back in the 1960s."

ANALYSIS: Ready to See the Universe in a New Light?

Unlike a conventional radio telescope, it is possible to point LOFAR in multiple directions at the same time, simply by having the computer crunch more data. This offers a much greater level of flexibility in the way astronomers can analyze the data and allows astronomers to analyze regular pulses of radio emission and probe such things as the physics of gravity and the properties of the material that pervades our Galaxy.

LOFAR has already given astronomers their "best-ever look" at pulsars : rapidly rotating neutron stars, created when massive stars die. An international team of scientists have already published a paper on the early results of the most sensitive low-frequency observations of pulsars ever made.

© 2012 Discovery Channel


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments