The LOFAR core ("superterp") near Exloo, Netherlands.
|Location||3 km north of Exloo, the Netherlands (core)|
|Wavelength||30 to 1.3 m (radio)|
|Telescope style||phased array of about 20,000 dipole antennas|
|Diameter||1000 km or more|
|Collecting area||up to 1 km2|
LOFAR is the Low-Frequency Array for radio astronomy, built by ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy and operated by ASTRON's radio observatory. ASTRON is part of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research.
LOFAR is the largest connected radio telescope ever built, using a new concept based on a vast array of omni-directional antennas. The project is based on an interferometric array of radio telescopes using about 25,000 small antennas concentrated in at least 48 larger stations. 40 of these stations are distributed across the Netherlands, five stations in Germany, and one each in Great Britain, France and Sweden. Further stations may also be built in other European countries. The total effective collecting area is up to approximately 300,000 square meter, depending on frequency and antenna configuration. The data processing is performed by a Blue Gene/P supercomputer situated in the Netherlands at the University of Groningen. LOFAR is also a pathfinder for the Square Kilometre Array.
- 1 Technical Information
- 2 Sensitivity
- 3 Science case
- 4 Timeline
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 External links
LOFAR was conceived as an innovative effort to force a breakthrough in sensitivity for astronomical observations at radio-frequencies below 250 MHz. Astronomical radio interferometers usually consist either of arrays of parabolic dishes (e.g. the One-Mile Telescope or the Very Large Array), arrays of one-dimensional antennas (e.g. the Molonglo Observatory Synthesis Telescope) or two-dimensional arrays of omnidirectional antennas (e.g. Antony Hewish' Interplanetary Scintillation Array).
LOFAR combines aspects of many of these earlier telescopes—in particular it uses omni-directional dipole antennas as a phased array using the aperture synthesis technique developed in the 1950s. Like the earlier Cambridge Low Frequency Synthesis Telescope (CLFST) low-frequency radio telescope, the design of LOFAR has concentrated on the use of large numbers of relatively cheap antennas without any moving parts, concentrated in stations, with the mapping performed using aperture synthesis software. The direction of observation ("beam") is chosen electronically by phase delays between the antennas. LOFAR can observe in several directions simultaneously which allows a multi-user operation.
The electric signals from the LOFAR antennas are digitised, transported to a central digital processor, and combined in software in order to map the sky. The cost is dominated by the cost of electronics and will follow Moore's law, becoming cheaper with time and allowing increasingly large telescopes to be built. So LOFAR is a "software telescope". The antennas are simple enough but there are a lot of them — about 20,000 in the full LOFAR design. To make radio pictures of the sky with adequate sharpness, these antennas are to be arranged in clusters (stations) that are spread out over an area of ultimately more than 1000 km in diameter. The 38 stations in the Netherlands reach baselines of about 100 km. In Germany five stations are operating: Bonn/Effelsberg, Garching/Unterweilenbach, Tautenburg, Potsdam/Bornim and Jülich. The Effelsberg station has been operating since November 2007, the German stations in Garching/Unterweilenbach, Tautenburg and Bornim/Potsdam since 2010, and the Jülich station since 2011. One station each is operating in Great Britain (Chilbolton), in France (Nançay) and in Sweden (Onsala). Data transport requirements are in the range of several gigabits per second per station and the processing power needed is tens of TeraFLOPS.
The data from LOFAR is stored in the LOFAR long-term archive. The archive is implemented as a distributed storage with data spread over the Target data center located in the Donald Smits Center for Information Technology at the University of Groningen, SURFsara center in Amsterdam and the Forschungszentrum Jülich in Germany.
The mission of LOFAR is to survey the Universe at radio frequencies from ~10–240 MHz with greater resolution and greater sensitivity than previous surveys, such as the 7C and 8C surveys, and surveys by the Very Large Array (VLA) and Giant Meterwave Radio Telescope (GMRT).
LOFAR is the most sensitive radio observatory at its low observing frequencies, until the next generation of large array radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), comes online around 2025.
The sensitivities and spatial resolutions attainable with LOFAR will make possible several fundamental new studies of the Universe as well as facilitating unique practical investigations of the Earth's environment.
In the following list the term indicates the redshift of the radio sources seen by LOFAR.
- In the very distant Universe (), LOFAR can search for the signature produced by the reionization of neutral hydrogen. This crucial phase change is predicted to occur at the epoch of the formation of the first stars and galaxies, marking the end of the so-called "dark ages". The redshift at which reionization is believed to occur will shift the 21 cm line of neutral hydrogen at 1420.40575 MHz into the LOFAR observing window. (The frequency observed today is lower by a factor of 1/(z+1).)
- In the distant "formative" Universe (), LOFAR will detect the most distant massive galaxies and will study the processes by which the earliest structures in the Universe (galaxies, clusters and active nuclei) form and probe the intergalactic gas.
- In the magnetic Universe, LOFAR will map the distribution of cosmic rays and global magnetic fields in our own and nearby galaxies, in galaxy clusters and in the intergalactic medium.
- The high-energy Universe, LOFAR will detect the ultra high energy cosmic rays as they pierce the Earth’s atmosphere. A dedicated test station for this purpose, LOPES, has been in operation since 2003.
- Within our own Galaxy, LOFAR will detect several hundred new pulsars within a few kpc from the Sun, will search for short-lived transient events produced by events such as stellar mergers or black hole accretion, and for burst from Jupiter-like extrasolar planets.
- Within our solar system, LOFAR will detect coronal mass ejections from the Sun and provide continuous large-scale maps of the solar wind. This crucial information about solar weather and its effect on the Earth will facilitate predictions of costly and damaging geomagnetic storms.
- Within the Earth’s immediate environment, LOFAR will map irregularities in the ionosphere continuously, detect the ionizing effects of distant gamma ray bursts and the flashes predicted to arise from the highest energy cosmic rays, the origins of which are unclear.
- By exploring a new spectral window LOFAR is likely to make unexpected "serendipitous" discoveries. Detection of new classes of objects or new astrophysical phenomena have resulted from almost all previous facilities that open new regions of the spectrum, or pushed instrumental parameters, such as sensitivity by more than an order of magnitude.
The epoch of reionization
One of the most exciting applications of LOFAR will be the search for redshifted 21 cm line emission from the Epoch of Reionization (EoR). It is currently believed that the 'Dark Ages', the period after recombination when the universe turned neutral, lasted until around z=20. WMAP polarization results appear to suggest that there may have been extended, or even multiple phases of reionisation, the start possibly being around z~15-20 and ending at z~6. Using LOFAR the redshift range from z=11.4 (115 MHz) to z=6 (200 MHz) can be probed.
Deep extragalactic surveys
One of the most important applications of LOFAR will be to carry out large-sky surveys. Such surveys are well suited to the characteristics of LOFAR and have been designated as one of the key projects that have driven LOFAR since its inception. Such deep LOFAR surveys of the accessible sky at several frequencies will provide unique catalogues of radio sources for investigating several fundamental areas of astrophysics, including the formation of massive black holes, galaxies and clusters of galaxies. Because the LOFAR surveys will probe unexplored parameter space, it is likely that they will discover new phenomena.
Transient radio phenomena and pulsars
The combination of low frequencies, omni-directional antennae, high-speed data transport and computing means that LOFAR will open a new era in the monitoring of the radio sky. It will be possible to make sensitive radio maps of the entire sky visible from The Netherlands (about 60% of the entire sky) in only one night. Transient radio phenomena, only hinted at by previous narrow-field surveys, will be discovered, rapidly localised with unprecedented accuracy, and automatically compared to data from other facilities (e.g. gamma-ray, optical, X-ray observatories). Such transient phenomena may be associated with exploding stars, black holes, flares on sun-like stars, radio bursts from exoplanets or even SETI signals. In addition this key science project will make a deep survey for radio pulsars at low radio frequencies, and will hope to detect giant radio bursts from rotating neutron stars in distant galaxies.
(Ultra) high energy cosmic rays
LOFAR offers a unique possibility in particle astrophysics for studying the origin of high-energy and ultra-high-energy cosmic rays (HECRs and UHECRs) at energies between eV. Both the sites and processes for accelerating particles are unknown. Possible candidate sources of these HECRs are shocks in radio lobes of powerful radio galaxies, intergalactic shocks created during the epoch of galaxy formation, so-called Hyper-novae, Gamma-ray bursts, or decay products of super-massive particles from topological defects, left over from phase transitions in the early Universe. The primary observable is the intense radio pulse that is produced when a primary CR hits the atmosphere and produces an Extensive Air Shower (EAS). An EAS is aligned along the direction of motion of the primary particle, and a substantial part of its component consists of electron-positron pairs which emit radio emission in the terrestrial magnetosphere (e.g., geo-synchrotron emission).
LOFAR opens the window to the so far unexplored low-energy synchrotron radio waves, emitted by cosmic-ray electrons in weak magnetic fields. Very little is known about the origin and evolution of cosmic magnetic fields. The space around galaxies and between galaxies may all be magnetic, and LOFAR may be the first to detect weak radio emission from such regions. LOFAR will also measure the Faraday effect, which is the rotation of polarization plane of low-frequency radio waves, and gives another tool to detect weak magnetic fields.
Solar physics and space weather
The sun is an intense radio source. The already strong thermal radiation of the K hot solar corona is superimposed by intense radio bursts that are associated with phenomena of the solar activity, like flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). Solar radio radiation in the LOFAR frequency range is emitted in the middle and upper corona. So LOFAR is an ideal instrument for studies of the launch of CMEs heading towards interplanetary space. LOFAR's imaging capabilities will yield information on whether such a CME might hit the Earth. This makes LOFAR is a valuable instrument for space weather studies.
Solar observations with LOFAR will include routine monitoring of the solar activity as the root of Space Weather. Furthermore, LOFAR's flexibility enables rapid responses to solar radio bursts with follow-up observations. Solar flares produce energetic electrons that not only lead to the emission of non-thermal solar radio radiation. The electrons also emit X-rays and heat the ambient plasma. So joint observation campaigns with other ground- and space-based instruments, e.g. RHESSI, Hinode, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), and eventually the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope and the Solar Orbiter provide insights into this fundamental astrophysical process.
In the early 1990s, the study of aperture array technology for radio astronomy was being actively studied by ASTRON - the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy. At the same time, scientific interest in a low-frequency radio telescope began to emerge at ASTRON and at the Dutch Universities. A feasibility study was carried out and international partners sought during 1999. In 2000 the Netherlands LOFAR Steering Committee was set up by the ASTRON Board with representatives from all interested Dutch university departments and ASTRON.
In November 2003 the Dutch Government allocated 52 million euro to fund the infrastructure of LOFAR under the Bsik programme. In accordance with Bsik guidelines, LOFAR was funded as a multidisciplinary sensor array that will facilitate research in geophysics, computer sciences and agriculture as well as astronomy.
In December 2003 LOFAR's Initial Test Station (ITS) became operational; this was an important milestone in the LOFAR development. The ITS system consists of 60 inverse V-shaped dipoles; each dipole is connected to a low-noise amplifier (LNA), which provides enough amplification of the incoming signals to transport them over a 110 m long coaxial cable to the receiver unit (RCU).
On April 26, 2005, an IBM Blue Gene/L supercomputer was installed at the University of Groningen's math center, for LOFAR's data processing. At that time it was the second most powerful supercomputer in Europe, after the MareNostrum in Barcelona. Since 2014 an even more powerful computing cluster called COBALT performs the correlation of signals from all individual stations.
In August/September 2006 the first LOFAR station (Core Station CS001, aka. CS1) has been put in the field using pre-production hardware. A total of 96 dual-dipole antennas (the equivalent of a full LOFAR station) are grouped in four clusters, the central cluster with 48 dipoles and other three clusters with 16 dipoles each. Each cluster is about 100 m in size. The clusters are distributed over an area of ~500 m in diameter.
In November 2007 the first international LOFAR station (DE601) next to the Effelsberg 100 m radio telescope became the first operational station. The first fully complete station, (CS302) on the edge of the LOFAR core, was delivered in May 2009, with a total of 40 Dutch stations scheduled for completion in 2013. By 2014, 38 stations in the Netherlands, five stations in Germany (Effelsberg, Tautenburg, Unterweilenbach, Bornim/Potsdam, and Jülich), and one each in the UK (Chilbolton), in France (Nançay) and in Sweden (Onsala) were operational.
LOFAR was officially opened on 12 June 2010 by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. Regular observations started in December 2012.
- Murchison Widefield Array (MWA)
- Precision Array for Probing the Epoch of Reionization
- ASKAP: Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder
- KAIRA: Kilpisjarvi Atmospheric Imaging Receiver Array
- LORUN: LOFAR at Radboud University Nijmegen
- Long Wavelength Array (LWA)
- MeerKAT: Karoo Array Telescope
- Square Kilometre Array
- Ukrainian Low-Frequency T-shaped Radio Telescope
- "Many-Core Processing for the LOFAR Software Telescope".
- Belikov, A; Boxhoorn, D., Dijkstra, F., Holties, H.A., & Vriend, W.-J (2011). "Target for LOFAR Long Term Archive: Architecture and Implementation". Proc. of ADASS XXI, ASP Conf. Series.
- Fender, R. P. (June 12–15, 2007). "LOFAR Transients and the Radio Sky Monitor". "Proceedings of "Bursts, Pulses and Flickering: wide-field monitoring of the dynamic radio sky"". Kerastari, Tripolis, Greece. p. 30. Bibcode:2007wmdr.confE..30F.
- "Epoch of Reionisation". lofar.org. Retrieved 2011-02-23.
- LOFAR Science Case: Ultra High Energy Cosmic Rays
- TOP500 List - June 2005
- LOFAR as a Probe of the Sources of Cosmological Reionisation. (preprint: astro-ph/0412080)
- LOFAR, a new low-frequency radio telescope. (preprint: astro-ph/0309537)
- LOFAR: A new radio telescope for low-frequency radio observations: Science and project status. (preprint: astro-ph/0307240)
- Square Kilometre Array (Scholarpedia article). 
- Das Square Kilometre Array (in German), reprint from Sterne und Weltraum 9/2006. mpifr-bonn.mpg.de
- LOFAR website
- ASTRON website
- German LOFAR website
- LOFAR-UK website
- LOFAR Sweden website
- LOFAR France website
- LOFAR Finland (KAIRA) website
- I-LOFAR (Ireland) website
- Transients Key Science Project
- Epoch of Reionization Key Science Project
- Solar Physics & Space Weather Key Science Project
- Cosmic Magnetism Key Science Project
- Interactive map of possible station locations
- A guided tour of the LOFAR-UK station