A close-up of quasar 3C196. The image on the right shows the locations where two jets from the massive black hole are hitting other material in the galaxy that hosts the quasar (Courtesy: ASTRON and LOFAR)
By Michael Banks
The €100m Low Frequency Radio Array (LOFAR) telescope, which was officially opened in June, has released its first radio image showing a close up of a quasar – a star-like object that is thought to be fuelled by a supermassive black hole.
Built by a consortium under the leadership of the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, LOFAR consists of some 36 antenna stations throughout the Netherlands and nearby countries such as Germany, France and the UK.
Connecting the stations together means LOFAR can boast to be the world’s largest telescope with a baseline around 1000 km wide. This gives it a high enough resolution so that radio sources at the lowest frequencies can be identified.
The image above shows the image of quasar 3C196 as taken by LOFAR. Astronomer Philip Best, deputy leader of LOFAR UK, says that even when viewed by the Hubble Space Telecope the quasar would only appear as a single point.
“This shows how LOFAR will help us learn about distant objects in much more detail,” says Best.
LOFAR will use low-band antennas operating at 10–90 MHz and high-band devices operating between 110 and 250 MHz will allow scientists to look back to the formation of the first stars in the universe and study high-energy cosmic rays.
Scientists will be hoping this image is just the start of a deluge of results from LOFAR. Indeed, one of LOFAR’s specific aims will be to study “reionization” – the period that began a few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang when the neutral hydrogen filling the universe at that time began forming into stars and galaxies. These stars and galaxies then ionized their environment, destroying neutral hydrogen in the process and leaving a marker for the evolution of the universe.