Prof. A.G. (Ger) de Bruyn (ASTRON, Dwingeloo & Kapteyn Institute, University of Groningen) has received an Advanced Grant of € 3.35 million from the European Research Council (ERC). With this money he can appoint a group of seven scientists (PhD students, postdocs and specialists in data analysis and software) for the next five years.
When did the lights go on in the Universe? Which objects were responsible? And what can we still observe from this phase, about 13 billion years later? These are some of the questions astronomers ask themselves about the ‘infant years’ of the Universe. To find answers to these questions, Prof. De Bruyn will use the revolutionary new radio telescope LOFAR, designed and built by ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy.
Astronomers will look for signals from neutral hydrogen. These signals are extremely weak and are being drowned by noise from radio galaxies, our Galaxy and the receivers. The hydrogen signals were emitted at a frequency of 1420 MHz. This frequency corresponds to a wavelength of 21 cm. The enormous expansion of the Universe since the signals were emitted, however, has increased the wavelength to about 1.5 - 2.5 metres. This corresponds to frequencies of about 120 - 200 MHz, within the frequency range for which LOFAR was designed. The first stars and galaxies must have been formed in the infant years of the Universe. The ionizing UV radiation of these objects would have created enormous holes – like in a Swiss cheese – in an ocean of neutral hydrogen that permeated the Universe in the first few hundred million years, according to the theory. Observations with LOFAR will be used to determine whether this hypothesis is correct, how this process evolved, and how long it lasted.
A total of € 0.9 million of the ERC grant will be used to acquire an extremely powerful computer cluster. This cluster will be needed to carry out the vast number of computations to process the large data volume (over 1000 terabytes*) and to filter the feeble signals from the noise.
De Bruyn, together with colleagues Koopmans and Zaroubi of the Kapteyn Institute and Brentjens from ASTRON, supported by an international team of astronomers, students and postdocs, has been planning this LOFAR project for the past ten years.
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*1 terabyte=1000 gigabytes (GB)
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