Colin Lonsdale says radio astronomy is experiencing a revolution. The new director of the Haystack Observatory in Westford, part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), believes that new instruments will probe unexplored parts of the distant Universe and allow scientists to answer crucial questions about how stars and galaxies first formed and continue to grow. See CV

This is the second such revolution for Lonsdale. When working on his PhD in the early 1980s, he demonstrated how energy is transported in extragalactic radio sources by studying radio jets and hotspots, using the then-new MERLIN array run from Jodrell Bank Observatory at the University of Manchester, UK. He calls his decision to pursue a PhD there “career-defining”.

As a postdoc at Pennsylvania State University, Lonsdale used interferometry techniques to study all aspects of extragalactic radio sources. His expertise in data-reduction software led him to a research scientist position at the Haystack Observatory. “That's when things took off for me,” says Lonsdale, who helped to detect an unusual radio signal from a complex, ultraluminous infrared galaxy created by the explosions of 50 supernovae.

That discovery, made together with his astronomer sister Carol, stunned colleagues. It not only yielded the first images of many simultaneously exploding stars inside a galaxy, but also altered the prevailing theory of how galaxies generate intense radio sources called masers, according to long-time colleague Phil Diamond, director of the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics. Diamond says it took Lonsdale's imagination and tenacity to demonstrate that these galaxies are starbursts.

In 2000, Lonsdale turned away from pure research, instead devoting his time to developing the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), an array of low-frequency radio telescopes in Western Australia. He says the MWA, scheduled to begin operation in 2010, will target questions such as how to measure solar storms accurately.

Lonsdale says advances in digital electronics have opened up a new frontier in radio science. Diamond fully expects that Lonsdale, who got funding for the MWA in difficult times, will use his expertise to help position MIT's involvement in the next generation of radio-telescope technology — the Square Kilometre Array. Diamond is optimistic about the effect Lonsdale can have on this project, which he calls “the big daddy of radio astronomy”.