Pupils will listen to galactic events thanks to satellite dish

IRISH school-children will be able to control one of Europe’s biggest radio telescopes and “listen” to distant galaxies as part of an exciting project.

A 32-metre satellite dish just outside Cork city, which was used to carry transatlantic phone calls in the 1980s, will be upgraded for use as a deep space radio telescope. It will be enable astronomers to “listen” to phenomena including:

* Enormous galaxy-scale jets from quasars.

* The emission of giant slow-moving hydrogen clouds.

* Violent eruptions of stars.

* Eruptions from the solar surface.

The project will be co-ordinated by Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) in conjunction with its Department of Applied Physics and Instrumentation.

The telescope will be linked to the award-winning Blackrock Castle Observatory, which is owned by Cork City Council, and operated by CIT.

The aim is to link the telescope via the internet to schools around the country, allowing school children to control its movement, and point it towards deep space objects.

CIT’s head of research, Dr Niall Smith, said the telescope at the Elfordstown Earthstation facility near Midleton will be the only 32-metre radio telescope in Europe available to primary students for educational purposes.

“This dish was originally used to receive and transmit intercontinental telephone signals,” Dr Smith said.

“We are changing the instruments in it to look at space.

“To build such a device today could cost between €10 million and €15m. We’re upgrading it with new detectors for about €10,000.

“It’s a great example of using world-class infrastructure in the most cost-effective way to reach out into the community and to embed our growing scientific heritage alongside our world-renowned culture.

“It will excite students in schools who will get to listen in on radio signals from outer space, it will be a test-bed for engineering and science projects from primary through to PhD, it will be available to researchers from across Ireland and beyond.”

Dr Smith also said it could become an iconic tourist attraction.

The project will be carried out in two phases. The dish will be operational by the end of the summer with feeds available in September via the internet to primary and post-primary schools.

The second phase, to repair its motors and allow it to swivel and pivot, will be carried out next year.

Minister for Research and Innovation Sean Sherlock said the facility would help Ireland remain at the cutting-edge of research and development.

It came into service on May 8, 1984. The Elfordstown dish was retired from use in the mid-1990s when underground transatlantic cables were laid.

It lay idle for several years until the National Space Centre (NSC), which now controls the facility, approached CIT with the idea of converting it for use as a radio telescope.

NSC chief executive Rory Fitzpatrick said: “We look forward to working with the entire science and astronomy, research and education communities on further projects as we develop.”

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