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UK scientists help to reveal hundreds of thousands of galaxies

19 February 2019

The first results from an international radio telescope survey have been announced today, revealing hundreds of thousands of previously undetected galaxies – and UK scientists are ‘right at the heart of the project’.

These results come from the first phase of the survey of the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) telescope, a network of radio antennas spanning seven countries, including the UK station at STFC RAL Space’s Chilbolton Observatory in Hampshire.

Radio astronomy reveals processes in the Universe that we cannot see with optical instruments, and LOFAR is considered to be the world’s leading telescope of its type. The results are shedding new light on many research areas including the physics of black holes and how clusters of galaxies evolve.

In the first part of the sky survey, LOFAR observed a quarter of the northern hemisphere at low radio frequencies. This first data release is just a fraction of what has been observed so far, showing just 2% of the sky – but it already maps 300,000 sources, almost all of which are galaxies in the distant Universe.

LOFAR produces enormous amounts of data; in fact, the equivalent of ten million DVDs of data has been processed to create the low-frequency radio sky map.

The UK contribution to LOFAR, which is funded by STFC, includes making most of the images for the first data release on the University of Hertfordshire's high-performance computing facility.

“Making these images in a completely automated way has required a lot of investment in software development as well as new computer hardware,” explained Professor Martin Hardcastle, University of Hertfordshire. “But the payoff is the unprecedented quality of the data, which will allow us to study the evolution of galaxies and their activity in more detail than ever before.”

The signals from all of the stations are combined to make the radio images. This effectively gives astronomers a much larger telescope than it is practical to build - and the bigger the telescope, the better the resolution. The first phase of the survey only processed data from the central stations in the Netherlands, but UK astronomers are now re-processing the data with all of the international stations to provide resolution twenty times better.

“We will be able to identify hidden black holes, study individual clouds of star formation in nearby galaxies, and understand what jets from black holes look like in the most distant galaxies,” says Dr Leah Morabito, of the University of Oxford. “This extra phase of the survey will be truly unique in the history of radio astronomy, and who knows what mysteries we'll uncover?”

Of the first 26 research papers describing the survey and its first results, a quarter of these were led by UK scientists.

Professor Chris Mutlow, Director of STFC RAL Space said: “UK scientists are at the heart of this international project to better comprehend our Universe. This new survey has already mapped thousands of galaxies, helping us understand how these galaxies and black holes evolve. The LOFAR-UK station at RAL Space’s Chilbolton Observatory will be celebrating its 10th anniversary next year, so it is timely to see such fascinating results from this radio sky survey. This is something we are extremely proud to support.”

Read more about the survey and its results on the RAL Space website.

Find out more about LOFAR-UK here.

Read more about the survey and its results on the RAL Space website.

Last updated: 19 February 2019


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