An Astronomical Legacy

Project could bring radio astronomy to historic Irish site.

The Leviathan at Birr, County Offaly

The Hubble Space Telescope opens our eyes to the awe-inspiring wonder of the universe, a triumph of engineering and scientific instrumentation. It orbits high above the clouds, street lights, and pollution of Earth to get an uninterrupted view of light that left its source millions of years ago. Hubble, and its younger siblings such as Kepler and Gaia are the latest in a venerable line of telescopes that push the limits of how much we know about the universe, stretching all the way back to when Galileo became the first person to point such an instrument at the stars and planets. Throughout history, larger and more sophisticated telescopes have deepened our understanding of existence.

One of the Hubble’s predecessors was called the Leviathan of Parsonstown, or the Great Telescope at Birr. Built in 1845 in the grounds of Birr Castle in County Offaly, Ireland, it was the most powerful telescope in the world for seventy years, peering deeper into the cosmos than anyone had seen before. It was here that nebulous objects that were previously identified by Charles Messier and John Herschel were seen in enough detail to discern their spiral forms. This was the discovery of how stars are gathered by gravity into spiral galaxies. The Leviathan attracted large numbers of visitors who came to gaze at these never-before understood objects.

It was dismantled in 1908 but its supporting walls remained. A replica of the telescope was constructed in 1997 and a working modern aluminum mirror was installed later to make the instrument useful for observation.

Telescopes like the Leviathan use visible light to make sense of the universe, but there is plenty of information to be gleaned from elsewhere on the electromagnetic spectrum. Radio telescopes, large dish-shaped instruments, are even more informative when pointed at the sky. They detect a wide range of radio waves emitted from distant stars and help to build a more complete picture of the universe.

It is therefore fitting that Birr Castle could become a site for the €150 million LOFAR network of radio telescopes that is being mooted for construction across Europe. Led by Professor Peter Gallagher from Trinity College Dublin, a group of scientists is pushing for €1.6 million to be raised to fund the proposed Irish part of the project. Donations totaling €0.2 million have already been pledged by three Irish businessmen and several academic institutions. Meanwhile the Polish government plans to invest €6 million in three LOFAR sites, the Dutch government has already invested €100 million, and the UK government has pledged €120 million on the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

If the Irish government were to step in and fund this project, the spin-off possibilities are enormous. The historic and scientific value of the restored Leviathan is already a strong tourist attraction to the area, and the enhanced educational possibilities of LOFAR would further strengthen it. Ireland’s reputation as a place to do business in today’s world would be strengthened if the country were seen to be an enthusiastic participant in cutting edge science, with an advanced economy, a far-sighted government that understands the importance of furthering our knowledge, and a scientific heritage that continues to the present day.