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Monday, 2 October, 2000, 16:31 GMT 17:31 UK
Irish giant could get new partner
Rosse BBC
The refurbished telescope will see the stars again
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse in Ireland

Birr Castle in the Irish midlands may once again become a world leader in astronomy, if plans for a new telescope meet with approval.

M51 Birr Castle
M51: A spiral galaxy first seen through the Rosse telescope
It has been proposed that a radio device be built alongside the historic Rosse reflector.

The newly refurbished reflector was called the Leviathan of Parsonstown when originally built in 1845 - its 72-inch mirror made it the largest telescope in the world.

Now, astronomers from Ireland and the UK want to site a radio telescope at the castle to extend the array of receivers based on Jodrell Bank near Manchester, UK.

The additional unit would improve the accuracy of radio studies.

'Whirlpool' observation

Birr's famous optical telescope was commissioned by the Third Earl of Rosse, who always looked at the stars while dressed in formal wear and a top hat.

He made an astounding series of observations in the middle of the 19th Century that were decades ahead of their time.

In one, he viewed a dramatic whirlpool-like structure, not realising at the time he was looking at a distant spiral galaxy - the M51 galaxy.

Earl Birr Castle
The Third Earl was always dressed for the part
For most of the 20th Century, the Leviathan lay broken and decaying, and it was only recently that a project was undertaken to restore the telescope to its former glory.

But amateur and professional astronomers hoping to look through the device once more, during their annual "whirlpool star" party in Birr at the weekend, were to be disappointed.

No-one was allowed to view the night sky because the new mirror still has to be cleaned sufficiently to allow observations to begin again.

Merlin extension

But there was some good news. Jodrell Bank astronomers have met Irish Government officials and scientific representatives to discuss the possibility of placing a radio telescope in the same grounds that hold the historic Rosse telescope.

Merlin Jodrell
Extending Merlin would cost millions
The radio telescope would be a western extension of the Merlin (Multi Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network) array of telescopes based on Jodrell.

Currently, Merlin is confined to the British mainland and is distributed in a predominantly north-south direction.

By linking radio telescopes together, astronomers can reproduce the power of a much larger device. According to Professor Sir Bernard Lovell, founder and former director of Jodrell Bank, extending Merlin to Ireland makes scientific sense. Speaking at Birr Castle, he said that although many details needed to be worked out, especially the money, the scientific case was strong.

Lord Rosse is also excited by the prospect. "It would be continuing the legacy of the Third Earl who built the magnificent telescope in the grounds," he told BBC News Online. "It would be what he would do."

A final decision to site a Merlin radio telescope in Ireland will be made in the near future. Informed sources say that the Irish Government would have to find about 5m for the project.

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19 May 99 | Sci/Tech
Mighty telescope to see again
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