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Building on Advanced Lofar Technology for Innovation, Collaboration, and Sustainability

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - BALTICS (Building on Advanced Lofar Technology for Innovation, Collaboration, and Sustainability)

Reporting period: 2017-04-01 to 2018-12-31

Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Center (VIRAC) is the only institute in Latvia engaged in radio astronomy (RA), and indeed the only RA research centre in the Baltic States. ASTRON and UMAN are world-class centres of expertise in RA science since 1950s. They recognize VIRAC as a strategically important partner for their future endeavours, in particular in the further instrumental development and maximal science utilization of their state-of-the-art physically distributed radio telescope facilities: LOFAR, and e-MERLIN. Addressing the specific challenge of the call BALTICS has the primary objective to directly and significantly increase the expertise level of VIRAC staff that will become able to carry out internationally-competing scientific research.

The approval of the BALTICS project itself proves growing competence and functionality of the VIRAC, which was stressed by VIRAC becoming of full member of the European Very Large Base Interferometry Network (EVN), Latvia's becoming as member of JIV-ERIC organisation represented at the Board by VIRAC Director and Authorised Authority of the Ministry of Education and Science.
The overall way to research excellence was highly evaluated by domestic decision makers, also taking into account BALTICS project, at the level of Parliament and Government, finally allocating almost 4 million EUR for new LOFAR station design and building, equipping, installing, testing in Latvia, which should result as the most Eastern fully functional in accordance to ILT standard new LOFAR station, integrated in the ILT network and used by new LOFAR Baltic consortia.
Thus, building LOFAR design, development and research application and data processing competence in BALTICS project created long-term trust and allocation of funds to build new LOFAR station in Latvia.
BALTICS project played very important role in mobilization of Ventspils University's College resources towards new technological development. The project activities ware part of VUC Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Centre's strategy for period 2014-2020 aimed to design and built new LOFAR station. The building research, engineering and personnel capacity and performance increased VIRAC performance and confidence among decision makers that institute can reach global research excellence. This reflected in growing support, providing also funds for new LOFAR station.

BALTICS is to enable additional opportunities for attracting students to VIRAC research. VIRAC is part of the Ventsplis University College which presently does not offer any physics or astronomy degrees, only engineering degrees in electronics and IT. A LOFAR station due to its data collection and processing complexity while ultimately used for scientific purposes also poses challenges in electronics, signal processing and IT. Thus, LOFAR can bridge the gap between the radio astronomy research goals of VIRAC and the more technical electronics engineering skills of the students at Ventspils University of Applied Sciences. BALTICS has provided the materials and template for educating students in LOFAR fundamentals.

Within three years 77 training weeks were executed where more than 25 VIRAC staff members were trained. Subjects covered during the project:
RF Design and Interference with practical exercises;
Introduction to LOFAR Hardware and its maintenance;
The Usage of the UniBoard Digital Signal Processing Board;
Interferometer development and design;
Techniques of radio astronomy and radio interferometry;
Interferometric Data Reduction; aspects of the LOFAR System and large base interferometry;
Data reduction with the e-MERLIN interferometer;
LOFAR data processing, analysis and imaging;
Phased array digital signal processing theory and exercises;
Catalogue of radio sources for ILT applications;
calibration focusing on importance of standardised signal sources;
aspects of transient analysis with LOFAR using catalogue of radio sources;
Long-baseline radio astronomy data analysis techniques and new image generation algorithms and platforms.

The project culminated with two day long Final Conference where 50 extremely knowledgeable participants from European countries were acquainted with project results, impact. Project initiated fruitful collaboration with Ukrainian partners resulted in new Latvian radio astronomy terminology glossary, strong contribution to VUC scientific library (new 81 items) and creation of national LOFAR user consortia lead by VUC.

Throughout the BALTICS project implementation, every effort was made to continually involve an extensive range of stakeholder groups and decision makers, as well as potential LOFAR station user network, special attention being paid to deepening their understanding of, and confidence in VLBI techniques, LOFAR technology and ILT performed research and applications. In the result there is increased expertise level of VIRAC staff who were intensively trained focusing on all aspects of ultra-modern sensor as well as Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) technologies, as used in the world-class pan-European network LOFAR, and on the class-leading radio telescope e-MERLIN, and long baseline radio Interferometry in general, as it is also used on the European Very Large Baseline Interferometry Network (EVN).

Training of VIRAC staff allowed the institute to become a long-term collaborator in the interdisciplinary research networks surrounding the International LOFAR Telescope (ILT). As a result VIRAC is able to provide top-level teaching for students in the Baltic States.
Among indirect benefits BALTICS project created team of local trainers able to teach local stuff and contribut to overall study process at ITC Department at VUC, as well as facilitated into funded new EraChair based project (EUR 2,5 mill.) to provide wide strategic support to VIRAC, including development of new strategy, personnel, infrastructure, commercialisation and new top project performance. The created valuable contacts will continue in form of further collaboration and design of new high impact scientific publications and new identified areas of co-operation.
The project outcomes should be viewed as a significant step towards the succesfull and sustainable VIRAC development. The project identified a set of issues requiring attention if the entire science capacity and innovation eco-system is to be improved.

The BALTICS project should be noticed as real long-term and sustainable success story. Project provided to VIRAC staff outstanding knowledge and skills in radio astronomy and LOFAR technologies. It catalysed provision of additional EUR 4 mill. allocated by government to establish new LOFAR-Latvia and equipped DART laboratory, an opportunity to train trainers contributing to whole higher education process at VUC. Interaction with state-of-the-art engineers, researchers and teachers helped better to inventory VIRAC strategic issues and obtain new project aimed to continue achievements from BALTICS project for next 5 years – EraChair project, financed from local EU Structural Funds.
The project complemented with additional support from ILT network members helped to change local stuff attitudes to LOFAR technique. New obtained role as Observing member of ILT and created national RT and LOFAR user consortia keeps growing leading role of VIRAC as space research center in Latvia and center of science excellence on EU-level.
BALTICS conference Day 1
Project Kick-off meeting in Ventspils (Latvia)
BALTICS conference (flags)
BALTICS conference day 2 (workshop) 2
Training 2
LOFAR Data processing sample
Training 3
BALTICS conference day 2 (workshop) 1
At ceremony of Latvia's entering JIV-ERIC and announcement of VIRAC becoming as full EVN member