New radio telescope in Birr detects huge solar storms

14 September 2017

The past two weeks have been nothing but stormy for the Sun, and the recently installed LOFAR radio telescope in Birr has been key to helping scientists keep an eye on weather conditions on our stormy stellar neighbour and to forecasting its effects here on Earth.

On September 3, a huge group of sunspots, many times the size of the Earth, appeared on the surface of the Sun and they have been producing solar storms and promoting spectacular displays of the northern lights ever since.

“This sunspot group has unleashed one of the largest flares in over a decade and one of the biggest in the last 40 years,” according to Professor Peter Gallagher, a solar physicist in the School of Physics at Trinity, “And we detected another whopping solar storm last Sunday, which was moving at about 3,000 km/s and arrived at Earth on Tuesday night [September 12].”

A huge solar storm observed by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory on September 10, 2017. This solar storm arrived at Earth on Tuesday night (September 12) and produced displays of the aurora in Scotland and other parts of northern Europe. Image credit: NASA SDO.

Solar flares are huge bursts of radiation that can release energies equivalent to billions of hydrogen bombs in several minutes and can be associated with ejections of hot clouds of gas into space at millions of kilometers per hour. While solar storms can produce beautiful displays of the northern lights, they can also cause problems in the communication and navigation systems that we use as part of our everyday lives.

“The recent solar storms have reportedly caused problems with radio communication systems used by first responders dealing with the fall-out of Hurricane Irma in the US,” added Professor Gallagher. “We have been using our instruments at Birr Castle to monitor this activity and its effects on the Earth’s upper atmosphere and magnetic field.”

Key to monitoring this increased solar activity has been the recently installed Irish Low Frequency Array (I-LOFAR) radio telescope at Birr, Co. Offaly.

The top image shows a NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) image of the September 10, 2017 X8.3 flare. A burst of radio waves associated with the flare was observed by I-LOFAR at Birr Castle, while NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Telescope detected a bright flash of high energy X-rays. Image credit: Laura Hayes and Peter Gallagher, Trinity College Dublin.

Research Fellow at Trinity, Dr Diana Morosan, said: “I-LOFAR uses hundreds of sensitive antennae to detect bursts of radio waves from solar flares and solar storms. I-LOFAR is enabling us to observe the Sun with greater accuracy than ever before and therefore to better understand its effects on our planet and on the technologies we depend on every day.”

But these are early days for I-LOFAR operations, and as the team learns how to operate the array on its own and as part of the International LOFAR Telescope, we are expecting many new astronomical discoveries from Birr, Co. Offaly.

About I-LOFAR

The Irish LOFAR Telescope is an array of antennas that observes astronomical objects at 10-90 and 110-240 MHz. The I-LOFAR Consortium includes TCD, Armagh, UCD, NUIG, UCC, DCU, DIAS and AIT. I-LOFAR has been supported by Science Foundation Ireland and the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and was formally switched on by the Minister of State for Training, Skills, Innovation, Research and Development, John Halligan T.D on July 27, 2017. I-LOFAR’s fibre link is sponsored by open eir. Further information on I-LOFAR can be found at www.lofar.ie.

Media Contact

Thomas Deane, Press Officer for the Faculty of Engineering, Mathematics and Science | deaneth@tcd.ie | +353 1 896 4685

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