Giant radio telescope goes multi-national - first images from LOFAR
01 Feb 2011




In the quest to discover more about our Universe and the birth of stars and galaxies, a new UK telescope - LOFAR - connected for the first time to others across Europe has delivered its first radio pictures

The image taken in a single shot by LOFAR reveals the stunning variety of objects which surround the quasar 3C196
(Credit: ASTRON and LOFAR)

In the quest to discover more about our Universe and the birth of stars and galaxies, a new UK telescope connected for the first time to others across Europe has delivered its first 'radio pictures'. The images of the 3C196 quasar (a black hole in a distant galaxy) were taken in January 2011 by the International LOFAR Telescope (ILT). LOFAR (Low Frequency Array), which is co-ordinated by ASTRON in the Netherlands, is a network of radio telescopes designed to study the sky at the lowest radio frequencies accessible from the surface of the Earth with unprecedented resolution.

The UK based telescope at STFC's Chilbolton Observatory in Hampshire, is the western most 'telescope station' in LOFAR. The addition of Chilbolton to other stations in Europe makes the LOFAR array almost 1000 km wide - ten times as large as the original array in the Netherlands - and creates the largest telescope in the world.

"This is a very significant event for the LOFAR project and a great demonstration of what the UK is contributing", said Derek McKay-Bukowski, STFC/SEPnet Project Manager at LOFAR Chilbolton. "The new images are three times sharper than has been previously possible with LOFAR. LOFAR works like a giant zoom lens - the more radio telescopes we add, and the further apart they are, the better the resolution and sensitivity. This means we can see smaller and fainter objects in the sky which will help us to answer exciting questions about cosmology and astrophysics."

A close up of the quasar 3C196
(Credit: ASTRON and LOFAR)

"This is fantastic", said Professor Rob Fender, LOFAR-UK Leader from the University of Southampton. "Combining the LOFAR signals together is a very important milestone for this truly international facility. For the first time, the signals from LOFAR radio telescopes in the Netherlands, France, Germany and the United Kingdom have been successfully combined in the LOFAR BlueGene/P supercomputer in the Netherlands. The connection between the Chilbolton telescope and the supercomputer requires an internet speed of 10 gigabits per second - over 1000 times faster than the typical home broadband speeds," said Professor Fender. "Getting that connection working without a hitch was a great feat requiring close collaboration between STFC, industry, universities around the country, and our international partners."

"The images show a patch of the sky 15 degrees wide (as large as a thousand full moons) centred on the quasar 3C196", said Dr Philip Best, Deputy LOFAR-UK leader from the University of Edinburgh. "In visible light, quasar 3C196 (even through the Hubble Space Telescope) is a single point. By adding the international stations like the one at Chilbolton we reveal two main bright spots. This shows how the International LOFAR Telescope will help us learn about distant objects in much more detail."

LOFAR was designed and built by ASTRON in the Netherlands and is currently being extended across Europe. As well as deep cosmology, LOFAR will be used to monitor the Sun's activity, study planets, and understand more about lightning and geomagnetic storms. LOFAR will also contribute to UK and European preparations for the planned global next generation radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

Notes to editors

For more information please see ASTRON's press release (link opens in a new window).

Images and captions

High resolution images taken by LOFAR are available here.

Image 1: A patch of the sky 15 degrees wide (as large as a thousand full moons) taken in a single shot by LOFAR. The image reveals the stunning variety of objects which surround the quasar 3C196.
Credit: ASTRON and LOFAR commissioning teams led by Olaf Wucknitz (Bonn) and Reinout van Weeren (Leiden Observatory).

Image 2: A close up of the quasar 3C196. Both images show the exact same patch of sky around the quasar. On the left is the image taken by the Dutch LOFAR telescopes; the image on the right was taken by the combined multi-national LOFAR telescopes which together provide a resolution as fine as 0.2 arcseconds, close to 1/10000 of the diameter of the moon. The two bright spots show the locations where two jets from the massive black hole in the centre of the galaxy are hitting other material in the galaxy which hosts the quasar.
Credit: ASTRON and LOFAR commissioning teams led by Olaf Wucknitz (Bonn) and Reinout van Weeren (Leiden Observatory).

Image 3: View of the LOFAR site at STFC Chilbolton Observatory, with the antennas belonging to the Low Band Array (LBA) in the foreground.
Credit: STFC


  • Bekky Stredwick
    STFC Press Office
    Tel: +44 (0)1235 445 777
    Mob: +44 (0)7825 861 436

  • Dr Karen Masters
    LOFAR-UK Spokesperson
    (University of Portsmouth/SEPnet)
    Tel: +44 (0)2392 843 137

Further information

The International LOFAR Telescope (link opens in a new window) (ILT) is a Pan-European collaborative project led by ASTRON (link opens in a new window) (the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy). Combining thousands of simple dipole receivers with powerful digital signal processing and high-performance computing, LOFAR can rapidly survey wide areas of the sky, looking in multiple directions simultaneously and relatively unexplored low frequencies, opening open up a new window for astronomers.

LOFAR will focus on six areas of research:

  • The epoch of reionisation - understanding how the first stars and black holes made the universe hot.
  • Extragalactic surveys - what is the history of star formation and black hole growth over cosmological time?
  • Transients and pulsars - probing the extreme astrophysical environments that lead to transient bright bursts in the radio sky.
  • Cosmic rays - what is the origin of the most energetic particles in the universe?
  • Solar and space environment - mapping the structure of the solar wind, how it relates to solar bursts, and how it interacts with the Earth.
  • Cosmic magnetism - what is the origin of the large-scale magnetic fields that pervade the universe?

The quasar galaxy 3C 196

3C 196 is a quasar (compact radio source) in a galaxy so far away that light from it has travelled for almost half the age of the universe to reach us (at a redshift of z=0.871). The word 'quasar' means 'quasi-stellar object'. Quasars look like single stars in visible light because the light coming from close to the central black hole is so bright that it outshines all the stars in the galaxy in which it is embedded.

The quasar 3C 196 was picked for the first light image of the LOFAR Telescope to show the massive increase in image sharpness (resolution) when the international stations are added to LOFAR.


The LOFAR station in the UK was opened by Professor Jocelyn Bell-Burnell on the 20th September 2010. Like all the other stations, it is linked back to a central supercomputing facility at Groningen in the Netherlands using a high-speed network connection, the equivalent of 5000 standard domestic broadband connections combined into one.

LOFAR-UK (link opens in a new window) is funded through a collaboration of UK universities with the SEPnet consortium and STFC, which includes:

  • RAL Space at STFC's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
  • STFC's UK Astronomy Technology Centre
  • STFC's Chilbolton Observatory.

The LOFAR-UK consortium represents 22 British universities, making it the largest radio astronomy consortium in the country. Over 70 leading UK astronomers are directly involved in the project. The universities involved include:

  • Aberystwyth University
  • University of Birmingham
  • University of Cambridge
  • Cardiff University
  • Durham University
  • University of Edinburgh
  • University of Glasgow
  • Hertfordshire University
  • University of Leicester
  • Liverpool John Moores University
  • University of Kent
  • University of Manchester
  • Newcastle University
  • University of Nottingham
  • Open University
  • University of Oxford
  • Portsmouth University
  • Queen Mary, University of London
  • University of Sheffield
  • University of Southampton
  • Sussex University
  • University College London

South East Physics Network

LOFAR-UK is supported by the SEPnet-Astro research theme. SEPnet (link opens in a new window) (South-East Physics Network) is a consortium of seven partner physics departments at:

  • University of Kent
  • Portsmouth University
  • Queen Mary, University of London
  • Royal Hollaway, University of London
  • University of Southampton
  • Surry University
  • Sussex University

working together to promote excellence in Physics.

For more information please contact: RAL Space Enquiries