The establishment of the MeerKAT radio telescope is step towards stimulating thoughts of “what is possible” in the minds of marginalised communities, women and children. Furthermore, astronomy can also be put to use in perhaps surprising ways to boost development.
The South African MeerKAT radio telescope, currently being built some 90 km from Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, is a precursor to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope and will be integrated into the mid-frequency component of SKA Phase 1. The SKA Project is an international enterprise to build the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world, and will be located in South Africa and Australia.
The Phase 2 (called SKA2) will expand into other African countries, with the component in Australia also being expanded.
The SKA will conduct transformational science to improve our understanding of the Universe and the laws of fundamental physics, monitoring the sky in unprecedented detail and mapping it hundreds of times faster than any current facility.
The MeerKAT telescope is an array of 64 interlinked receptors (a receptor is the complete antenna structure, with the main reflector, sub-reflector and all receivers, digitisers and other electronics installed).
After a decade in design and construction, this project of South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology has now begun science operations.
The MeerKAT First Light image
At the launch event, a panorama obtained with the new telescope was unveiled that reveals extraordinary detail in the region surrounding the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy.
This is one of several very exciting new views of the Universe already observed by the telescope.
“We wanted to show the science capabilities of this new instrument”, says Fernando Camilo, chief scientist of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), which built and operates MeerKAT in the semi-arid Karoo region of the Northern Cape.
“The center of the galaxy was an obvious target: unique, visually striking and full of unexplained phenomena – but also notoriously hard to image using radio telescopes”, according to Camilo.
The center of the Milky Way, 25,000 light-years away from Earth and lying behind the constellation Sagittarius (the “Teapot”), is forever enshrouded by intervening clouds of gas and dust, making it invisible from Earth using ordinary telescopes. However, infrared, X-ray, and in particular, radio wavelengths penetrate the obscuring dust and open a window into this distinctive region with its unique 4 million solar mass black hole. “Although it’s early days with MeerKAT, and a lot remains to be optimized, we decided to go for it – and were stunned by the results.”
The MeerKAT First Light image of the sky shows unambiguously that MeerKAT is already the best radio telescope of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.
“This image is remarkable”, says Farhad Yusef-Zadeh of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, one of the world’s leading experts on the mysterious filamentary structures present near the central black hole but nowhere else in the Milky Way. These long and narrow magnetized filaments were discovered in the 1980s using the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope in New Mexico, but their origin has remained a mystery.
“The MeerKAT image has such clarity”, continues Yusef-Zadeh, “it shows so many features never before seen, including compact sources associated with some of the filaments, that it could provide the key to cracking the code and solve this three-decade riddle”.
Yusef-Zadeh adds that “MeerKAT now provides an unsurpassed view of this unique region of our galaxy. It’s an exceptional achievement, congratulations to our South African colleagues. They’ve built an instrument that will be the envy of astronomers everywhere and will be in great demand for years to come”.
Regional Economic Impact
Since activities of the SKA project started in the Northern Cape, SKA SA has made a number of positive impacts to the lives of the people of Carnarvon, Williston, Van Wyksvlei, Brandvlei, Vosburg, Loxton, Fraserburg and Calvinia.
The construction of the KAT-7, MeerKAT, the HERA and PAPER has created a total number of 7, 284 direct and indirect jobs.
To date, R136 million has been spent at local suppliers for the construction of the above-mentioned projects.
Local industry and institutions with appropriate existing technical expertise and interest were invited to participate in the SKA Pre-Construction Design Phase, and an amount of R55 million was awarded to 14 SMME’s via the SKA SA Financial Assistance Programme to develop skills and expertise in advanced technologies. A total of R1 million has been spent on training and development of people participating in these programmes.
Overall the localisation of the R3,2 billion MeerKAT and KAT-7 projects stands at 75%.
History of the MeerKAT
The telescope was originally known as the Karoo Array Telescope (KAT) that would consist of 20 receptors. When the South African government increased the budget to allow the building of 64 receptors, the team re-named it “MeerKAT” – ie “more of KAT”. The MeerKAT (scientific name uricata suricatta) is also a much-beloved small mammal that lives in the Karoo region.