DCU professor Shane O’Sullivan uses radio telescope in Birr, Co Offaly, as part of efforts to help understand how the universe began
Science is closer to understanding how magnetism first arose in the universe thanks to a DCU astronomer working on a global telescope network.
Shane O’Sullivan, who is an assistant professor of astronomy at DCU, has measured incredibly weak, distant intergalactic magnetic fields with greater accuracy than ever before, according to the journal MNRAS.
Astronomers are interested in magnetism because of what it says about how the universe was formed, and the rules governing its existence, and because it is one of the basic physical forces that dictate universal laws.
Prof O’Sullivan said: “Magnetism is a phenomenon that exists everywhere, and we make use of on Earth for communication, navigation and for MRI scans.
“We would like to know more about how it arose.
“Scientists want to know, for example, if cosmic magnetism originated just after the Big Bang, or much later when stars or galaxies formed,” added Prof O’Sullivan, who used the I-LOFAR radio telescope in Birr, Co Offaly – part of the LOFAR network of European telescopes – to make his latest findings.
The I-LOFAR telescope is flat, which enables it to gather light and radio signals from distant parts of the galaxy, while special software permits astronomers to focus on those areas of the night sky of particular interest.
The Earth is surrounded by a magnetic field, he added, while on the planet the force of magnetism derives from molten rocks deep in the core.
These rocks dictate where “true north” and “true south” are on a compass, while every 300,000 years or so these poles are reversed.
Magnetism is invisible but is everywhere, producing repulsive or attractive forces.
The challenge that astronomers such as Prof O’Sullivan face is trying to measure magnetic fields in distant space that are about one billion times weaker than the average fridge magnet.
Astronomers are probing the earliest moments just after the Big Bang in an effort to better understand how it began, and how stars, planets, solar systems and galaxies came to form the visible universe.
Discovering the origins of magnetism can help answer those questions.