A Huge Telescope

All across the European Union, antennas are appearing. Forty larger stations cluster in the Netherlands, but the antennae have been seen as far away as France, Sweden, Great Britain, and Germany. They appeared in Britain only recently, but already the people there are listening to signals caught by the antennae – all of them. The 20,000 or so antennae are all part of one system, the Low Frequency Radio Array radio telescope. By far the largest telescope on Earth, LOFAR has a diameter of easily 1000 km and encompasses an area of roughly one square kilometer.

The reason such a large telescope is needed is simple. A greater distance between antennae allows for the capture of lower radio frequencies and also allows for a better, higher-resolution picture of what has been captured. For this reason, radio telescopes have always been built on a large scale, but the EU-wide LOFAR dwarfs them all.

LOFAR will allow for things to be studied that were invisible to us before. Because it can see vast distances into space, it can effectively see back in time, due to the speed of light – things that LOFAR can see in the distance appear as they were when light first left that part of the universe, which includes things that occurred billions of years ago.

Among other things, this ability will quite possibly allow LOFAR to study the Epoch of Reionization, a little-understood period during the development of the universe. During the early life of the universe, almost all of the gas in the universe was in a neutral state, making the universe opaque and fairly uniform. It is unknown what triggered it, but eventually radiating bodies such as stars and quasars formed and ionized the majority of the previously neutral gas. LOFAR may allow for analysis of this period and its causes, leading into more insight into the nature of the universe.

In addition, LOFAR may allow for proof of Einstein's theory of general relativity. The telescope will be able to find pulsars, stars that work almost like cosmic clocks due to the stable frequency of their pulsing. LOFAR can monitor two of these pulsars at once and compare the rhythms to each other. If Einstein's ideas of gravitational waves are correct, one of the stars will appear to pulse slightly too slowly compared to the other.

Of course, these are far from the only possibilities. LOFAR may well discover phenomena that were previously totally unknown, due to the sensitivity and range of its sensors. Known but poorly understood phenomena can be examined in far more detail than before. LOFAR's sensitive sensors may be able to catch data on brief, transient cosmic events that no other telescope could detect. This Europe-wide telescope will provide new and fascinating insight into our universe's history and present, and may even provide a look at our future.




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